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The Puah Principle

It's the small acts that make big people


Miriam Haneviah was born a child of galus. Her parents named her Miriam, from the word mar, bitter, and she dedicated her life to turning bitter to sweet (Seder Olam Rabbah, 3). Before the age of seven, she prophesied that her divorced parents would reunite and give birth to Moshe Rabbeinu, savior of the Jewish People (Midrash Rabbah, Naso, 13). With love and patience, she watched over her brother as he lay in his floating crib on the Nile. At the propitious moment, she stepped forward to make sure he would be nursed by his own mother.

She was the leader of the Jewish women at Yetzias Mitzrayim, inspiring them to bring percussion instruments into the Midbar, confident they would witness Redemption. After crossing the Yam Suf, she led them in song and dance. In her merit, we earned the Be’er Miriam, which supplied the Jews with the purest of water throughout 40 years of wandering in the desert.

Miriam’s legacy is as the great teacher of Jewish women. On a deeper level, her Be’er Miriam represents Torah shebe’al peh, the Oral Law, and Miriam is described as the essence of the Oral Law (Sfas Emes, Ki Seitzei, 5657).

Perhaps most inspiring of all was her bravery. Along with her mother, Yocheved, she stood up to Pharaoh and defied his decree of genocide. By putting her life in mortal danger, she succeeded in saving a generation of Jewish children.

In the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Miriam stands out as the quintessential Jewish hero.

In Search of the Jewish Hero

What makes a Jewish hero?

Do you remember the tragic attacks of September 11 in 2001, when Americans consoled themselves with the rediscovery of the “American hero”? Gone was the “me-first” and “dot.com” generation, which celebrated the pursuit of instant wealth, pleasure, and ego gratification. America was once again dignified with noble men of valor, who stepped forward in the hour of need with the spirit of bravery and self-sacrifice.

During those days, I ran a chizuk website for seminary graduates called JemSem. At the turn of the secular millennium, countless lists were compiled of the greatest this and the greatest that of the millennium, century, decade, and year. I was contacted by a respectable Torah organization with a request to ask our readers to nominate the “greatest Jewish woman of the 20th century.” I respectfully declined. I’d like to explain why.

Let’s go back to Miriam.

Chazal teach us that if you want to understand the essence of a letter, word, person, or concept, the best place to go is where it’s first mentioned in the Torah. Where is Miriam mentioned for the first time in the Torah? Surprisingly, she’s introduced to us as an Israelite midwife, using her professional name, Puah. Rashi (Shemos 1:15) explains the significance of this name: “Puah is Miriam. She was named ‘Puah’ because she would coo [‘Puah’ is similar to the word poah, which means ‘cooing’] and gently speak to a baby, in the manner of women who know how to pacify a crying infant.”

This is astonishing! The first time that our great hero Miriam is introduced to us in the Torah, her essence is revealed as the woman whose expertise is in hushing a newborn child. How uninspiring! Every mother calms her baby. Why does the Torah reduce the legacy of this exalted woman to her ability to do something so unoriginal?

At first glance, this is insulting.

But Rav Yerucham Levovitz, former mashgiach of Mir Yeshivah, responds to this with a vitally important principle. This principle doesn’t ring true in the ears of those raised in Western culture. It’s certainly not the way the media wants us to see people. But it’s the ultimate arbiter of how we should see people.

The Torah doesn’t differentiate between big actions or small actions. The Torah only differentiates between big and small people. Big people do everything with “bigness.” They put every drop of their moral strength into everything they do.

Significantly, if you want to see the greatness of a person, the dramatic acts he does is a poor indicator. Imagine a fireman who is awarded a medal for going into the flames of the Twin Towers and saving lives. Is he “big” person? The world says yes. He should be displayed on the front cover of magazines with reverence and adoration.

The Mishnah (Avos 2:5) advises, “Al tadin es chavercha ad shetagia limkomo — don’t judge a person until you see him in his home.” Imagine we find that our fireman doesn’t know how to treat his wife and children. He’s the worst husband and father. According to Rav Yerucham, the fact he found the strength to rise to the occasion when under public scrutiny only tells us he did a great deed. But true greatness is beyond his reach. He remains a very “small” person.

So how do we know that Miriam was a great person? Perhaps she, too, like our fireman, was able to rise to the occasion at the moment of truth. Was she truly great?

The Torah responds emphatically. The first time we meet her, she’s singing a lullaby to a baby with exactly the same passion she exhibited when she defied Pharaoh or led the Jewish women in triumphant song. Her “bigness” in the little things she did, was her true indicator of greatness. Miriam lovingly calms a child that isn’t her own, when nobody could see her, and the child would never know.

This is the moment of true Jewish heroism.

Defining a Hero

Let’s take this idea a little deeper. We are accustomed to a secular definition of heroism. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a hero as “a person who is admired for achievements and noble qualities.” In other words, heroism isn’t something intrinsic in a deed. It’s a function of the admiration of others. If nobody ever knows about your achievements, they cease to be heroic.

This outlook is typical of the ancient Greeks and is totally rejected by the Torah. Great deeds of great people in the Torah are generally hidden, with no one except Hashem knowing. For example, the most awesome deed of all, Akeidas Yitzchak, was done in total privacy. As Rav Moshe Meiselman writes in his classic Jewish Woman in Jewish Law (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1978): “How different are the great people of the Torah from Greek heroes! Perhaps the clearest example is the contrast between the Akeidah and the Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis. While Abraham sacrificed Isaac to G-d, for G-d, and before G-d alone, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia for Greece and in the presence of Greece. The essence of the Greek heroic act lay in its public appeal and public nature. There was no glorification of inner heroism, but only of public display and public approval.

“Far from the shores of Aulis was the Jewish hero. To the Jew, moral victory for both man and woman is what one does for G-d and before G-d, the Source of all value. Jewish tradition frowns upon public display, for the moment a human acts in public, his motivation can be tainted by unworthy considerations.”

What would be the accurate word for hero in Lashon Hakodesh? Unsurprisingly, there isn’t one. Since the “hero” concept belongs to a culture that the Torah considers false, by definition it doesn’t exist in Lashon Hakodesh, the holy Hebrew language, where every word is truth. In metaphysical terms, the hero has no metzius, no place in the world of reality, and therefore he doesn’t exist in the language of absolute reality. The hero is in the company of a whole list of words that represent concepts that have no translation into Lashon Hakodesh, the language of emes anchored in reality. They include words such as bravery, chivalry, gallantry, romance, fun, and fair play.

Nevertheless, in this article, we’ll continue to use the word hero in its loose sense, to connote greatness in a person. True greatness, however, is the hallmark of those who strive to remain hidden from the eyes of man, so they can devote every small deed in loving service of Hashem.

Women Are Heroes

It’s no surprise that the “Puah Principle,” that greatness can only be seen in the small deeds of people, is taught to us by a woman. We live in a society in which greatness is measured by the appreciation and acknowledgments of others, in which fame is both glamorous and desirable, and in which deeds have to be reported by newspapers to be noble.

In the mindset of Western civilization, the “low-achieving” female gender is often at the bottom of the greatness hierarchy. When some colleges for Jewish women flaunt their greatest graduates, they invariably venerate those who, for example, became academically famous, built distinguished institutions, or broke glass ceilings in the corporate world.

The Torah mindset is quite the opposite. Torah sees greatness in modesty, though small, quiet acts of virtue hidden from public view. This is exactly where Jewish women excel. King David exclaimed, “Kol kevudah bas melech penimah — the prestige of the [Jewish] princess is her privacy” (Tehillim 45:14). She remains private, achieving maximum results with minimum profile. Famous Jewish women like Miriam only achieved greatness in the eyes of the Torah community because the truth slipped out when we became aware of their small, hidden deeds.

A more modern example of a truly great Jewish woman is Sarah Schenirer. She’s the obvious candidate for “the greatest Jewish woman of the 20th century.” She was the visionary, founder, and tireless builder of the Bais Yaakov movement. In secular parlance, she was a woman who “made it big.” Yet if you read Rav Hanoch Teller’s magnificent biography of her in Builders (NYC Publishing, 2000), a picture emerges of an extremely modest woman who wanted nothing more than to serve Hashem hidden from public view. She stepped forward to do what had to be done because, like Miriam before her, she was the only one who could do the job.

Take, for example, Rabbi Teller’s description of the crowning day in her life, the gala celebration to dedicate the new Bais Yaakov seminary in Krakow: “Speaker after speaker ascended to the decorated stage to address the gathering. Here was the fulfillment of Sarah Schenirer’s dream — but where was the woman who had launched the movement, dedicating every waking moment to its success, the woman who was the sole inspiration for the entire gathering?

“Sarah was, as always, in the background. She allowed others, who had built upon the foundations she had lovingly laid, to assume the limelight. Finally, they found her. Standing in the last row of the audience, surrounded by some of her students, was Sarah Schenirer, a sefer Tehillim clutched tightly in her hand.”

Sarah Schenirer was indeed a great Jewish woman. But her greatness was defined by achievements that a secular biographer couldn't possibly recognize or acknowledge. She was great because she managed to engineer the greatest revolution in women’s education for generations without sacrificing a drop of the privacy of the Jewish princess.

I’ve been asked why we don’t mention the Imahos in the beginning of the Shemoneh Esreh after invoking the Avos (which, by the way, was one of the first changes to the siddur made by the Reform Movement). The answer is clear. We always mention the Imahos together with the Avos. When we say Avraham, we mean Avraham and Sarah. By definition there’s no Avraham without Sarah; they’re two sides of the same coin. And so on with the other Avos.

Nevertheless, the Imahos choose to be mentioned as the completion of their spouses. They feel more comfortable that way. They’re always there for us, praying, beseeching, and complementing the work of the Avos. But they’re exactly where they want to be, exactly where future generations of their children need them to be. Away from the public eye. Private and hidden.

Interestingly, if asked who was the greatest man of the 20th century, the Chofetz Chaim would probably get most votes. We can safely assume that his wife was “ishto k’gufo,” as great as he was. Yet very little is known about the wife of the Chofetz Chaim.

So to answer the question of the survey presented to the JemSem website, “Who was the greatest Jewish woman of the 20th century?” The answer is simple. By definition, we’ll never know.

It’s Not about Charisma

Another word that has no metzius is charisma. It’s a personality trait that should make us cautious. Charismatic people can be scary because they can be manipulative. We hear stories, for example, of respected rabbanim who are electrifying speakers, brilliant scholars and published authors, who though the power of their charismatic personalities, do very bad things to people. How can we ever trust a rabbi?

The answer, again, is with the “Puah Principle.” Let’s see what they’re like behind closed doors, when they’re not on show. Let’s see if they can do small deeds with greatness. If they don’t, then they’re exposed as hoaxes and should be shunned. But if we see them doing small deeds with greatness, their charisma becomes a blessing from Hashem. This is the hallmark of many of our gedolim. They use their charisma to inspire others and further the causes of Klal Yisrael.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen many examples of gedolim doing small deeds with greatness. I’ve shared this story before in these pages, but I’m sharing it again as it’s so powerful and so illustrative of this idea. Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l once volunteered to come to my apartment in Har Nof to see if he could make shalom between neighbors after there was a bitter machlokes. With elegant chochmah, he worked out a solution that pleased everyone. When he was in my house, our cleaning lady Sara offered him tea. He politely declined.

After having walked down two floors to leave the building, Rav Moshe suddenly turned to me and said, “Menachem, I forgot something.” I thought he’d forgotten something like an umbrella and offered to get it. But he started climbing the stairs again, and back in my apartment, went from room to room until he found the cleaning lady and wished her goodbye.

Rediscovering Miriam

From a Torah perspective, there were many unsung heroes during those heady days that followed 9/11. Among them were the remarkable women who did shemirah for those who died at the World Trade Center. The New York Times, in an article published on November 6, 2001, titled “Stretching a Jewish Vigil for the Sept. 11 Dead,” relates: “In the darkest hours of the night, Judith K., dressed in her Sabbath finery, sat in a tent outside the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, singing the haunting repertoire from the Book of Psalms. From midnight until 5 a.m., within sight of trucks full of body parts from the World Trade Center, she fulfilled the most selfless of Jewish commandments: to keep watch over the dead, who must not be left alone from the moment of passing until burial.… Ms. K. and the others have won blessings from Christian chaplains at the site, and their dedication has moved police officers and medical examiners to tears.”

This was indeed a stunning mitzvah and a kiddush Hashem. Nevertheless, without detracting from the importance and beauty of the deed, and through no fault of the women who did the mitzvah, on its own it lacked the true definition of a great deed. It was in open view. The New York Times wrote an article about it. The mitzvah was diminished under the eye of the public.

Perhaps the following, totally hidden scenario captures the spirit of Jewish heroism: “Around the world, all eyes are glued to the television as the astonishing events of September 11 unfurl in front of an incredulous world. As hard as it may be for Rachel L., she pulls herself away from the intoxicating screen and picks up a Tehillim to pray for the welfare of the victims. She cries hot tears for Hashem to have mercy on His children. In Heaven, the prayers are accepted and a decree is rescinded to save the life of one of the casualties.”

A tefillah saves a life. The act is totally hidden. Surely this is the essence of greatness. Yet here, too, we can’t say for sure that the deed was pure. Rachel’s mitzvah was a reaction to an extraordinary occurrence. She rose up to the occasion and responded correctly and admirably. Would she be able to find the same power of tefillah inside of her on an ordinary day? Perhaps the astounding event brought out of her a special strength and an intensity of prayer. But there was nothing sustainable that would indicate internalized greatness.

We’re forced, then, to fall back to the only type of scenario of self-evident greatness: “Somewhere, in the middle of the night, a baby cries. A mother pulls her weary body out of bed and consoles her child. She sings an old song her mother used to sing when she was a little girl. The baby relaxes and falls back to sleep. The baby will never know, and perhaps will never understand what had happened until she, too, becomes a mother.”

We’ve found true greatness. A Jewish mother connects through the generations to the prophetess Miriam. At that moment she has become Puah. In a small hidden deed, she has discovered the essence of the Jewish hero, of Jewish greatness.


Rabbi Menachem Nissel is the Senior Educator of NCSY and teaches at Yeshivas Yishrei Lev and various seminaries in Yerushalayim. He is the author of “Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 838)

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