From Midos, Emulating Hashem (#656)
Q: Often we learn about our gedolim (sages) only in posthumous (after they pass away) biographies. What can we do to learn from the gedolim we have today?
A: The question is Who is a gadol? Not an easy question! People think it means the rabbis who are famous and are always mentioned in the Orthodox newspapers — they’re the gedolim. It could be, however the question Who is a gadol? is not so easy to solve.
The gemara says in the bayis rishon (first Temple) they had nevuah (prophecy), the shechina (Divine Presence) was there and there were neviyim, prophets. In bayis sheini (second Temple), there was no longer any nevuah, prophecy, but there was a bas kol (Divine Voice), a special form of knowledge; information came from On High at certain rare intervals.
A bas kol had to come to show who was the real gadol
The gemara gives an example. Once they were sitting all together in Sanhedrin and a bas kol came forth and said there’s one man here who is fit that the shechina should rest on him. Had he been born in an earlier era, he would have been a navi. They began to look around. “Maybe it’s you? Maybe it’s him?” And finally their eyes fell on Hillel. Hillel was famous as an anav (humble person) besides being a man who sacrificed all his life to study Torah in poverty. Hillel was famous for his patience, famous for his kindliness and therefore they all decided that’s what the bas kol intended. So you see a bas kol had to come for that purpose: to show who was the real gadol. It seems without the bas kol they wouldn't have known…
However, the consensus of the world also means something. I remember when the Chofetz Chaim was still alive. He was respected, but it was only when he passed away that his name became really great in the world. It’s unfortunate, because the Chofetz Chaim was more useful when he was alive. If you’d move into Radin and follow him and try to emulate his ways you could have learned from him. Of course you could still learn after he passed away but it’s not the same.
“Gedolim tzadikim b’misasam yoser mib’chayeihem — tzadikim become greater when they pass away,” more than they were when they were alive. They are greater, but our opportunity to utilise them [is diminished].