In the parshiyos of Shemos and Va'era, the Torah refers to Aharon and Moshe together several times. Sometimes the posukmentions Moshe first, and sometimes Aharon first. Why? Rashi[i] raises this question and Rashi answers that it is to teach us that “she'shkulim k'echad,” that Moshe and Aharon were equally great. The idea is as follows. Let's say you were writing a letter to the president and vice-president. You would always address the president first because he is more important. If you mention one person first, that shows he is more important. But, if you are writing a letter to two people whom you view as equally important, then one way to express that they are equally important is to sometimes mention one person first and the other times mention the other person first. That is what the Torah does here.
Rashi here is quoting a midrash. This midrash is actually quite difficult. How could the midrash say that Moshe and Aharon were equal? They were not equal. Moshe was greater than Aharon. Moshe was the greatest prophet who ever lived, Moshe reached the highest level that a person can reach in this world. The Rambam writes that Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai was, “nis'ka'desh k'mal’ach,” he became almost as holy as a malach. No other person reached that level, including Aharon. What is the explanation of this midrash?
Many meforshim address this issue. One approach is as follows[ii]. Moshe certainly was greater than Aharon. Moshe achieved a higher level of kedusha than Aharon. Moshe in a sense became closer to Hashem than Aharon was. However, each fulfilled his own maximum potential. Moshe achieved his full potential, and Aharon achieved his full potential as well. Even though in the end Moshe reached a higher objective level, subjectively each achieved his own full potential and therefore they are considered exactly equal in the eyes of Hashem and will be exactly equal in olam habah.
The gemara (Bava Basra 10b) tells a story that an amora, Yosef the son of Reb Yehoshua, became very sick, and he had a vision of olam habah and then recovered. He said that he saw an upside down world. He saw important people (elyonim) below, and simple people (tachtonim) above. His father, Reb Yehoshua responded, “No, you saw the true world.” Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that it is strange that the son was confused. Certainly the son knew that olam habah is the olam ha'emes. And in that world it is very possible that people we perceive as important may be lower. Rav Moshe writes that what confused the son was that the elyonim were people who achieved a lot in ruchniyos. And yet, they were lower in olam habah. The son saw that there were elyonim, people who achieved objectively greater accomplishments, who were lower than tachtonim, simple people who did not achieve that much. A person is judged by his efforts, according to how well he fulfilled his potential, as opposed to being judged by his actual accomplishments. The answer which Reb Yehoshua, his father, gave to his son was that the tachtonim were people who fulfilled their potential, so in olam habah they will be above the elyonim. This is a beautiful explanation of a difficult gemara[iii].
Every person has to recognize his own abilities and talents, and he must work to achieve his own potential. One application of this idea is that we have to be very careful from judging others. When we view someone else's life, we see their accomplishments; however, we do not see the challenges they face, their backgrounds, and we do not know how hard they struggle to reach their goals. Therefore, even if we think that the results are not so great, we have to be very careful from judging them in any sort of negative way. Only Hashem knows the whole picture, and Hashem judges everyone. Every Jew has to focus on reaching his own full potential.
[ii] See the Dorosh Moshe of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l
[iii] This explanation of the midrash blends well with a beautiful vort of the Chofetz Chaim (Chofetz Chaim Al HaTorah, Parshas B’chukosai). When one makes a siyum he recites a tefillah. Part of the tefillah reads, “anu ameilim v'heim ameilim,” “we work and they work. We work and receive reward, and they work and do not receive reward.” (See Brochos 28b.) At first glance this is difficult; only someone who learns receives payment? Someone who has a job as a shoemaker or a tailor, he is not paid for his work? What exactly does this tefillah mean?
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the key phrase is “ameilim,” “work.” In most jobs one is paid for the results. For example, let's say someone is a shoemaker and you hire him to makes shoes for you. Your feet are a size eight and he makes shoes that are a perfect fit for a size ten. You will not pay him because you pay him for the results that he produces a good shoe that fits you.
This is not so regarding Limud Torah. When it comes to learning, one is paid for the efforts, not the results. If someone struggles over a piece of Gemara or a difficult Tosafos and does not figure it out, he gets the same schar as someone who actually does figure it out. If a person is working in a sincere fashion and struggling to figure out and understand the Torah, he gets schar for the efforts and not just the results. This is the Chofetz Chaim's approach to “anu ameilim v'heim ameilim.”