On Daf 17a, we encounter the following passage, quoted in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, who made this statement when he concluded his study of the book of Job:
“Ashrei…, fortunate is he…who grew up with a good name and who took leave of the world with a good name…”
We must understand why a good name is so important. Does our reputation really matter? Why should the opinions that other people have of us be of such significance?
One of the lesser known commentaries on Maseches Brachos is penned by the famous Chassidic rabbi, Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, known by his major work, Bnai Yissaschar. The title of his two-volume commentary on our Maseches is Magid Ta’alumah.
His remarks upon the significance of a shem tov, a good name, are inspiring and instructive, and I am excited to be able to share them with you.
He begins by alluding to “that which is written…’the voice of the crowd is like the voice of Shaddai’”. Now, if anyone reading this knows where this is written, I would like you to tell me. My research indicates that it is certainly not in Tanach (although a phrase close to this can be found in the first chapter of Yechezkel, it clearly has a different meaning there), and also not in the Talmudim or standard Midrashim. It is quoted in later rabbinic sources. It seems to originate in the Latin saying, “vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the populace is the voice of God.”
Of course, there is a much more familiar quotation which serves as the basis for the legitimacy of public opinion in defining one’s own spiritual status, and which has a definite source in Chazal: “Kol sheruach habriyos…, in the one in whom people delight, God delights.” (Pirkei Avos, 3:10.)
But R’ Zvi Elimelech finds the above sources inadequate to explain why it is it insufficient to just have a good name, because it would seem from Rabbi Yochanan’s statement that he must also “take leave of this world;” that is, die, with a good name in order to deserve to be called “Ashrei…, fortunate is he…”
And so, he shares with us a teaching of his master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, based upon another passage in Shas, which we will study together several years from now, please God. This is the seemingly rude statement which Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus made when he first met Rabbi Akiva: “So, you are the Akiva whose name travels from one end of the world to another. You are fortunate that you have merited such a reputation, but know that you have not yet reached the level of a cattle shepherd!” (Yevamos 16a). All who study this passage are puzzled not only by its apparent rudeness, but because they wonder about the advantage of a reputation which is not yet fully deserved.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel provides us with a fascinating teaching: “There are many ways to serve the Almighty. A spiritual approach which is perfectly appropriate for one person is sometimes absolutely inappropriate for someone whose soul is rooted elsewhere. Each of us is often frustrated because we do not know precisely which spiritual approach is appropriate for us and our distinctive souls. One is well advised, therefore, to listen carefully to how one is praised by another. If you find that you are praised with attributes that you do not yet deserve, then assume that you’re getting a message from Heaven telling you to pursue those qualities for which you are being praised until you reach the point at which you really do deserve them.”
Therefore, Rabbi Dosa was telling Rabbi Akiva that he had the talents to be able to teach not just his circle of students, but all of the Jewish people. Rabbi Dosa was saying: “You are not there yet! Compared to what you could be, you are still but a cattle shepherd. Continue to study, continue to teach, and you will become the teacher of us all, and a teacher for all generations.”
Rabbi Zvi Elimelech then returns to our text in Berakhot 17a. “Ashrei…, fortunate is he who grew up with a good name.” He is fortunate because that good name informed him about his potential. But he is only fully fortunate if he also departs from this world with a good name. That is, if he lives up to his potential and retains that good name up to the time of his death.
I share these words with you because sometimes we are guilty, all of us, of false humility. We receive praise because of our intelligence and other talents and skills. But we tend to dismiss these praises as overestimations or exaggerations about what we know our capabilities to be.
But the lesson that Rabbi Zvi Elimelech, and indeed Rabbi Yochanan himself, are teaching us is that we must take these praises seriously, and turn them into our life goals. We all have potential for far greater things than we give ourselves credit for. The shem tov that others give us are clues and guidelines to help us reach that potential.