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Jewish Thought Special Contributor: Rabbi Jason Mann

Who is Great?

In my professional career both as a physician and a spiritual care provider I have
had many experiences caring for those who are in the process of dying. It is hard to
choose one important event or moment that merits recounting among a vast array of
very moving and touching experiences that I have had in my professional life. Here is
one very remarkable encounter that I would like to share because of the important
lesson I learned from caring for this man and his family.

I took care of a man with lung cancer for a few days during his last hospitalization.
Though this man was quite ill at the time, I did get to know him fairly well prior to his
death. He told me that he had worked as a house painter and had lived in Portland
Oregon for his whole life. He was very proud of his long- term marriage and his son. In
getting to know him there was nothing that particularly stood out for me. His life
seemed like so many others. His narrative was comfortable without many peaks or
valleys and he faced the end of his life without focusing very much on a careful review
or analysis of the meaning of his life.

After about a one-week hospitalization he died in his sleep in the middle of the
night. The next morning I entered the room to find his son at his bedside. I expressed
my condolences to his son who then looked up at me and said, “My father was a great

As I stood at the bedside I was very struck by how this son had characterized his
father. When I got to know this man before his death there did not appear to me to be
any sign of “greatness,” in his life, as I so foolishly defined greatness before having had
this important moment of spiritual awakening and understanding. The man who had
just died did not seem to have done anything that was earth shattering or changed the
world in anyway.

This moment taught me an important lesson about greatness. Greatness does not
necessarily require doing something so large that the whole world recognizes it.
Greatness comes in the small things we do everyday to support and care for others.
Greatness comes with the attention we bring to providing love and truth in all that we
do. I had the sense that this is what this man’s son was trying to tell me about his
father. His father had been a loving parent and a good man and these characteristics
were more than enough to make him “great.”

Many of us seek impressive credentials and external achievements to be
remembered and thought of as being great men and women. This is very limited and
perhaps not the best way to define our capacity to be great. Greatness comes with
living our life with love and attention. In our work within our circles of family, friends,
and others. That is the true gift we are given in life. We are given the opportunity to be
a loving presence in the world.. The Hebrew Bible expresses this quite clearly through
these words from Deuteronomy 30:11-14.

“For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you,
neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you shouldest say: `Who shall go up for us to
heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' Neither is it
beyond the sea, that you should say: `Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it
unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' But the word is very near unto
you , in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.”

The path to greatness is not out of our reach. It is there for all of us to grasp
everyday. As compassionate and caring members of the world at large and our PJTC
community, we find this capacity to be great and to understand the greatness of others
in every moment in our lives and in every person that we meet.

by Rabbi Jason Mann M.D., MPH

Tue, June 28 2022 29 Sivan 5782