The Gemorah in Mesechta Gittin relates of an episode that transpired during the era of the churban Bais Hamikdosh. Rav Yehoshu ben Chananya was in the city of Rome and was told of a good-looking child with a handsome countenance whose locks of hair were arranged meticulously, languishing in jail. He made his way to the jail and called out, paraphrasing the following possuk, “Mi nosan limishisa Yaakov viYisroel libozizim”- “Who caused that the Jewish people should be trampled upon and wantonly robbed”. The response came from the child behind bars, “Halo Hashem zu chatanu lo”- “It is from Hashem whom we sinned against”. Rav Yehoshua was extremely impressed and proclaimed that this child, who eventually became the great Rav Yishmael ben Elisha, would one day become a great man and a great leader of Klal Yisroel. He immediately set out to redeem him at an exorbitant price.
The Meforshim ask: Why does the Gemorah take time to describe the beauty of this child? What bearing does it have on the story? Did Rav Yehoshua redeem him simply because of his outward beauty? One would assume that he was impressed by the response of the child. A young boy at such a tender age to understand that punishment comes from Hashem and the ability to connect the source of tzaros was extraordinary, and that was the source of Rav Yehoshua’s being awestricken!
Under normal circumstances, one who is cast into a difficult and untenable situation, is prone to despair and hopelessness. This is usually apparent when the troubled person begins to neglect his personal hygiene, becomes depressed and wallows in his misery. When Rav Yehoshua was told that the boy maintained his external beauty and his hair locks were arranged perfectly, he understood that the boy had maintained his confidence and bitachon that everything happening to him was yad Hashem. His self-respect and self-dignity remained intact because he had a keen perception of Hashem’s presence and hashgocha. A young boy able to exhibit that staunch emunah and understanding of the ways of Hashem was guaranteed to reach gadol biYisroel status.
In Parshas Vayetzay the possuk describes, “Vayehi eisav ish yodea tzayid ish sadeh viYaakov ish tam yoshev ohalim”- “Eisav was a man of great hunting skill and man of the field, whereas Yaaakov was a man immersed in the tents of Torah”. The question is asked: Why is the word- “ish” used twice to describe Eisav, while Yaakov is described with the word- “ish” only once?
Yaakov was an “ish tam”- a perfect person, no matter the situation that he was thrust into. It mattered not that he was in the Bais Medresh or in the house of Lovon or on the run from Eisav. He was the same great Yaakov come what may! Eisav maintained various personalities depending on the situation. In the field he was a ruthless hunter. When he served his father he role-played a tzaddik. His personality was not genuine. His essence was scrambled.
The essence of a great person is gadlus wherever Hashem places him. This child’s greatness shined even while cast into captivity with no natural chance of liberation. This is genuine greatness.