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11 Tishrei 5763 - September 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Ga'avoh and the Relative Standard

Based on shiurim by Rabbi Dovid Siegel

Did you ever find yourself sitting on a park bench or a bus, minding your own business, and your thoughts suddenly began drifting: Who is this person sitting next to me? Look at that. He has such a small kippa. Her bangs are peeking out of her hair covering. He/she is nowhere near as important as I. I am far more religious and worthy than he/she.

Of course, this internal soliloquy stems from that ever- present problem of ga'avoh.

But why did my mind so naturally drift this way? The unfortunate answer is because of my constant need to elevate myself, which can be accomplished in two ways: either by dwelling on my own importance or by pushing another person down. If the person next to me is lacking, then I am, by implication, superior.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to instantaneously size others up and compare ourselves to them. But if we take a few minutes to analyze the accuracy of our comparisons, we may increase our ahavas Yisroel and decrease our feelings of pride.

Upon examination we will discover several fallacies in our quick judgment calls. First, let's deal with the issue of "better." I'm better than. Let's stop and think about how Hashem views this.

Who is really better? To know that, we must have thorough knowledge of the other person's background, education, and general living environment. If that person had lived in my situation, maybe he/she would have been even better than I! Given their background, they may actually be excelling.

For example, I have the good fortune of living in a supportive, growth-oriented community. What if I didn't? Would I be so pious? This person sitting next to me may actually be doing everything that he/she knows. Granted she has gaps in her education, but in her community, she may be regarded as its rebbetzin.

Another important issue is individual potential -- and only Hashem knows the answer to that. As for me, I am probably achieving 80 percent, while this other person may be rating over 90 percent. The Ramban points out that when we fall into relative judgment, we should remember that when I neglect a mitzva, then I am doing so consciously, with knowledge, which renders me an intentional sinner. But when one who is less knowledgeable than I acts that way, he is likely doing so beshogeg, unintentionally. Since Hashem judges every act on the basis of how willful it was, on that count ignorance is somewhat bliss.

On a similar note, let us consider a person's background and temptation. When a less observant person passes by a non- kosher restaurant, it may be a real challenge not to go in and order a cheeseburger. But for me, even the thought is repulsive. So when someone overcomes the urge and passes by that treif place, the reward in store for him is tremendous. Every time they control their passion, they collect another mitzvah in light of Chazal's words, "One who refrains from the temptations of sin, receives the reward for a mitzvah."

This also holds true in the value of mitzvah performance. The more effort exerted towards a mitzvah, the greater the reward. In the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva there were two young men. One was an intelligent, wealthy boy who had studied 50 blatt throughout the winter, while the other one, a poor orphan, had studied only 2 blatt.

Noting the disparity, the latter approached the Chofetz Chaim for an explanation of why his friend had accomplished so much more than he. The young fellow told the Chofetz Chaim that his friend had merited to learn 50 blatt, while he had only learned 2. The Chofetz Chaim interrupted and said, "200 blatt? That's gevaldik!"

The youth clarified, "Rebbe, I only studied two blatt."

The Chofetz Chaim repeated, "200 blatt!"

The young man tried again, but the Chofetz Chaim persisted, "200 blatt!"

Finally the Chofetz Chaim explained, "Chazal say, `Yofeh echod betza'ar mimei'ah shelo betza'ar, One thing with a struggle is better than 100 without struggle.' Your friend studied 50, but you did even better. You studied 200!"

We learn from this that what comes naturally to one person may be a major accomplishment for another. So, in this area the person sitting next to me may excel, again!

Another point to contemplate is which direction he is going. Maybe his kippa is larger than it was last year. Perhaps he has a daily learning seder, which his father never had. I see him on this particular rung of the ladder, but he is, in fact, so much further than he was and is on his way to such great heights. I, on the other hand, may have been stagnating for years!

Now, as I am sitting there on that bench busily measuring and comparing the person next to me, I should think about my ahavas Yisroel. If I truly loved him, would I be so preoccupied with such negative thoughts? He is sitting there next to me, unaware of my deliberation, and is most likely respecting me, while I have been taken over by that old ga'avoh problem.

As we know, to'avas Hashem kol geva-lev, the haughty are despicable to Hashem. So what does that say about me? And what does it say about this Jew-loving, all-accepting person sitting next to me? Who is really better than whom? The mere thought that I am more pious and better than he degrades me in Hashem's eyes.

So I am beginning to gain insight into myself. I have established that arrogant thoughts that creep into my mind about less observant Jews are baseless. But such thought patterns are so ingrained in me that they seem inerasable, impossible to eradicate. How can I break this habit?

The only hope is to retrain myself. When I notice arrogant thoughts popping up, I must stop them dead in their tracks. I should replace them with more loving and positive thoughts. For example, I wish I had his/her ahavas Yisroel.

Once I redirect my thoughts and consider my neighbors as worthwhile individuals, I can actually feel traces of ahavas Yisroel for them. Now I can strike up a conversation: What's your name? Where are you from?

Now that I have delved into reality and deflated my arrogance, then my heart is open to my fellow Jew sitting next to me.

Taking into account the possibilities listed above and convincing ourselves of their likelihood will open up our minds and attack our feelings of negativity. If we really consider the other person's background and potential as compared with our own, it is not hard to elevate him/her in our eyes.

Unearthing the Roots

Let's dig a bit deeper and see if we can reach the root of ga'avoh and its negative repercussions and pluck it out of our hearts.

Ga'avoh comes from a chain of rapid thoughts. Here is an example of their pattern: Look at that person over there. I am definitely smarter/more capable than he. Because I am smarter, I am better. Because I am better, I should be respected. So why don't people realize they should respect me?

What is driving my thoughts in this direction? Why does it feel good to know that I am "better than"? Amongst our beastlike drives is the need to be in a position that no one can reach. My sense of accomplishment is based on my position relative to others. With this approach, I thrive on the shortcomings of others. When someone else appears lacking, I seem more whole.

In Pirkei Ovos (3:2) it says, "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his friend alive." Apparently, rejoicing in others' failures is an intrinsic human problem. As bizarre as this seems, we discover traces of this in our own basic nature.

But Chazal have taught us, "Hamiskabeid bekolone chaveiro ein lo cheilek le'Olam Habo. One who receives honor through his friend's disgrace has no portion in the World to Come." This means that our human tendency must (and can) be controlled. Comparing ourselves to others is not a healthy method of evaluating ourselves -- or others, for that matter.

Imagine there were no one else in the world but I. Then, who would I be better than? And who would be better than me?

Well, in that case, I would be the best. But I would also be the worst! Then I would only have myself to compare to, and I would have to take a good look in the mirror. I would be forced to genuinely evaluate if I am living up to my potential or not.

Indeed, this is how I should rate myself, based solely on myself, not on my friends and neighbors.

But let's face it. Each of us does have areas in which we shine. One person is more intelligent, while another is socially adept. Everyone has different qualities and capabilities and stands out in his/her particular area. Doesn't this entitle him to feel special?

The answer is absolutely not! Because the sphere in which he excels does not generally require much effort. It is merely part of his personality, so that does not make him "better." It merely means that he has met his basic requirements. It is fine to recognize the areas in which one stands out, but not to feel "better" because of them.

In addition, this tendency to judge ourselves based on a relative standard has a serious problem. If we view and judge ourselves this way, our view is very narrow. I may be intelligent compared to everyone in my class or workplace, but what about the rest of the world? There are undoubtedly many others out there far more intelligent than I. If I leave my dream world for a moment and imagine myself standing next to them, I would quickly realize I have a long way to go.

Now that we have analyzed the fallacy of pride based on a relative standard, we can look at the flip side of this problem. This issue is discussed thoroughly in psychology and many emotional sicknesses stem from it. We're talking about low self-esteem.

We look around and note that others are more gifted in certain areas, and we conclude that they must be . . . there's that word again: "better" than we. This makes me feel inferior and sometimes worthless. Feelings of inferiority result in depression, eating disorders, obsessions and worse. And it all traces back to that unhealthy human tendency to rate ourselves in comparison to others, that relative standard.

If we combat the habit of comparing ourselves on a relative standard, we can eliminate both ga'avoh and low self- esteem. But how do we effectively redirect a whole way of thinking which we have developed over a lifetime?

One way is to put things in proper perspective. Imagine an ant colony. Two ants are chatting. One says to the other, "I went to the wall twice, and you only went once. I'm much stronger than you." In the ant world, this conversation is significant because this is what their lives are all about.

In reality we are also ants. What are we competing about? Income, intelligence, homes, vacations. The mal'ochim looking down on us surely see us as no better than large ants.

Another exercise is to consider how much credit I can take for my accomplishments, which we have discussed previously. We did not choose our level of intelligence. Ramchal points out that just as a bird has no right to be proud of his ability to fly, so too one has no right to pride himself in his qualities and accomplishments.

Intelligence and all other gifts are given to us as a challenge and opportunity. The more we have, the more Hashem expects of us. If we do not use these gifts properly, they can be abused, misused, or overused. Whatever gifts one has, he should really consider whether or not he is using them properly and to the fullest.

In this framework, we realize that with sincere effort, there is virtually no limit to how much we can accomplish. Gaining self-perfection and closeness to Hashem is by definition a never-ending process. Since Hashem is limitless, there is always room for us to improve in our understanding and self- perfection.

Rav Saadia Gaon did teshuva every day of his life. A student asked him, "Rebbe, you are the godol hador. You can't be sinning every day."

He answered, "You are right. I don't. But every day I gain understanding of Hashem's greatness, and I am embarrassed about how lacking my avodas Hashem was the day before."

Moshe Rabbenu lived his entire life in Hashem's presence. He always considered himself like an ant in comparison to Hashem.

In conclusion, the only real perspective is how Hashem looks at us. After years of comparing ourselves to others with relativity, it will take time to develop new thought patterns. But we realize that the whole idea of a relative standard and the belief that some people are "better" than others is simply nonsensical. Considering other people's background and circumstances, and trying to view others from Hashem's standards puts things into a more realistic perspective.

If we train our minds to be less concerned with how we measure up to others and more concerned with how Hashem regards us and our accomplishments, then we can effectively uproot both ga'avoh and low self- esteem. Then we can begin traversing the road to perfection.

Rabbi Dovid Siegel is a rosh kollel in Kiryat Sefer.

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