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
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
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
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
The Chofetz Chaim repeated, "200 blatt!"
The young man tried again, but the Chofetz Chaim persisted,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
Moshe Rabbenu lived his entire life in Hashem's presence. He
always considered himself like an ant in comparison to
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
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.