The Slow, Long Climb

On Shabbos Parshas Yisro, I came across three small mussar insights brought down in Artscroll’s Limud Yomi all of which I thought have extra meaning for Baalei Teshuva.

Each of these insights are derived from the same pasuk. In the last verse of Parshas Yisro, the Torah tells us: “Don’t go up to My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered thereon.” Rashi explains that this means to tell us that the approach to the altar should not be built with steps. Rather, the approach should be built with a ramp since it is easier to walk modestly up a ramp and it would be “disrespectful” to the stones to do otherwise. Many of us are familiar with the explanation that this teaches us that if we have to be concerned for the respect of inanimate objects, how much more so must we be concerned for the respect of our fellow man.

The first insight arises from asking the question: Why did Hashem place this instruction at this particular place in the Torah? At this point in time, Bnai Yisrael had just received the Torah, why did Hashem see fit to place this law here even before the actual commandment to build the altar is given? It seems an incongruous place for this particular rule. R’ Yisrael Salanter once said that “A person running to do a mitzvah can tear down an entire world on his way.” Good intentions and fervor are great but not when they trample upon care and respect for a fellow Jew. In other words: doing the right thing is important but it must also done right. After matan Torah, Bnai Yisrael were understandably enthusiastic and ecstatic about living up to its new status and tackling the tremendous responsibilities that had been placed upon them. Often, enthusiastic, excited people rush headstrong into their obligations without giving proper thought to how their actions may impact upon or affect others. Additionally, zealous individuals will often view those that don’t share their level of enthusiasm with skepticism which is not always warranted. That is why the Torah issues this warning right after matan Torah, as if to say: In your newfound zeal and responsibility, do not step upon those whom you should respect.

The second insight is brought out by R. Reuven Feinstein who says that the idea of avoiding “stairs” is applicable as well to one’s attempt to ascend in spiritual growth. If one tries to climb too quickly, his weakness will become exposed, it is far better to climb slowly, being sure of ones spiritual footing, and even resting when necessary, than to attempt to jump to a level that one is not ready to attain.

The last point is found in the interpretation of Orach LeChaim who explains that this pasuk is advocating the necessity of humility within spiritual growth. When one wishes to ascend in his service of Hashem, he should take care not to place himself on any kind of pedestal (this is the meaning of “Maalos”-steps according to his explanation). If a person approaches the service of Hashem with true humility, he will succeed in ascending to great heights.

3 comments on “The Slow, Long Climb

  1. Cloudlessly èrudite elucidations on stuff.
    I especially love the embracing humility with a huge hug for life thing. (Thé iggeres haramban letter really works! Just so you know ).
    One quick thought on the cumbersome climbing concept ; sometimes for literally lateral leaning individuals,sequential linear climbing is bordering on “not a doable option”.
    Some of us subscribe to Don Quixote’s “He jumped up on his horse and rode off in all directions”.
    Such persons, should not be expected to monitor spiritual progress or maintain some sort of upward oriented ènergy.
    Especially considering the fact that by default all the ènergy is just being channeled and routed towards and in a plethora of distinctly dazzling directions.
    Mostly in the common form of mass mutual magnetism. (Always the blame the brain).

  2. It also pays to have teachers and friends who will nip our pretensions in the bud while facilitating (certainly not stifling!) our progress.

  3. Very nice insights. Here’s another one that I heard way too many years ago to remember in whose name (it runs a bit counter to insight #2 above, but that’s OK – shiv’im panim laTorah) is that climbing steps allows one to plateau, i.e., become complacent. A ramp forces a person to be constantly moving forward – even slowly – because if you stop growing, you will slide backwards.

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