Growing at the Bottom of the Heap

Finding Oneself on the Bottom
There are many hierarchies in our world. Three of the hierarchies discussed in Torah sources are those of wealth, wisdom and spiritual performance. Two others that come to mind are spiritual heritage and the merits of our children.

Sometimes strength in one hierarchy, like wealth or wisdom, compensates for weakness in another. A person might choose to live in a community where Torah knowledge and spiritual performance standards are lower, so that they can comfortably reach the middle or the top of the hierarchy. However, viewing ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchy is a tool for growth.

Pursuing Honor is an Attempt to Escape the Bottom
In the Mesillas Yesharim chapter on “The Details of Cleanliness”, the Ramchal discusses taking both our mitzvos and character traits to the next level. He discusses the chief traits that we need to work on, namely, pride, anger, envy, and desire.

When discussing desire, he doesn’t talk about the base desires that usually come to mind, rather the desire for wealth and the desire for honor. In regard to the desire for honor, the Ramchal states:

The desire for honor is even greater than the desire for wealth, for it is possible for a person to overcome his inclination for wealth and the other pleasures and still be pressed by the desire for honor, being unable to tolerate being, and seeing himself beneath his friends.

The desire for honor is so strong, because we are unable to tolerate being, and seeing ourselves beneath our friends. We are uncomfortable being towards the bottom of the heap.

Using our Distaste for the Bottom to Motivate Growth

In the chapter on the “Acquiring Watchfulness”, the Ramchal discusses motivators for spiritual growth. He discusses three levels:

1) those who are striving for perfection
2) those motivated by honor and envy
3) those motivated by reward and punishment

In relation to honor and envy, he explains that we since find it extremely difficult when we are on a lower level in regard to the vanities of this world, how much more difficult it will be to find ourselves on the bottom in the eternal world of truth. Distaste for the bottom should motivate us to embrace spiritual growth now.

The Ramban Tells Us to Embrace Bottomhood

To overcome the trait of honor we need to be ok with being at the bottom of the hierarchy. In fact in the Iggeres HaRamban, when discussing how to work on the trait of humility, the Ramban says:

Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer — or wiser — than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!

In regard to the hierarchies of wealth, wisdom and spiritual accomplishment, we should actively figure out how we are lower than every person to whom we speak. Not an easy task, but humility is the art of seeing yourself at the bottom.

Humility Before Hashem

One might ask why did Hashem create the world with so many hierarchies and our strong distaste for being near the bottom? My Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt”l taught that relationships between people are often training grounds for our relationship with Hashem. Developing humility among people, enables us to be more humble before Hashem and to realize that although we must make our efforts, He is the ultimate source of everything we have.

In the chapter on the “Divisions of Saintliness”, the Ramchal writes that before we pray or perform a mitzvah we should recognize that we are standing before and communicating with our Creator, that Hashem is elevated and raised above all blessing and praise, and that man is inferior due to his earthly qualities and the sins he commits.

Growing at the Bottom

Hashem has created a world of hierarchies and we have a strong distaste for being at the bottom. Our goal is to embrace the bottom, strengthen our humility, and recognize this is the place of our growth. Acknowledging this makes us beloved in the eyes of Hashem and enables us to find pleasure as we take our next growth steps in Torah, Tefillah, Mitzvos, Acts of Kindness and Middos improvement.

8 comments on “Growing at the Bottom of the Heap

  1. Shmuel, as I said in the post, Hashem created the world with hierarchies as a challenge for us in the middos areas of pride, anger, envy and honor. I think the term hierarchy is throwing you off. It’s not like there is a master list rating everybody on these scales.

    When one person thinks they are superior to another, which is an example of pride, the arrogant person is creating a 2 person hierarchy, where they are on top and the other person is on the bottom.

    Our job is to deal with the challenges of the hierarchy and as you pointed out the Mishna in Avos (4:1) is one of the key sources for dealing with hierarchies. It is teaching us that the wealth hierarchy should not be our personal focus, rather we should always strive to be happy with what we have.

    However on the flip side, the Ramban teaches us that humility can be achieved by recognizing the wealth, wisdom and spiritual performance hierarchies and placing ourselves at the bottom of one of these hierarchies and becoming comfortable with it. Here is the relevant passage from the Iggeres HaRamban.

    Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer — or wiser — than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!

  2. Bob, I agree with you that every person should be treated with respect, but unfortunately that is not always the case. People treat others with disrespect because they imagine themselves superior. The Ramchal discusses this in the “Details of Cleaniness” chapter referenced above, in the section discussing pride.

    In corporations the hierarchy is clear so you don’t treat your boss with disrespect if you want to keep your job. In life, the hierarchies are not always so explicit.

  3. I am surprised at the premise of this essay because I am not familiar with a community “hierarchy” in which people find themselves at the bottom (or the top, for that matter). Where does this idea come from? It seems to me that one who sees the world this way is overlooking fundamental guidance that the Torah gives us, such as “me’od me’od hevei sh’fal ru’ach,” “l’fum tzara agra,” etc.

    The three “hierarchies” mentioned are: “wealth, Torah wisdom and spiritual performance.”

    Wealth: there is no doubt that some people are blessed with more material wealth than others (though peoples’ situations change from time to time). But what happened to the definition of “ashir” being “hasamei’ach b’chelko”? If one adopts this definition of wealth, he’ll never feel he’s at the bottom of any hierarchy, for two reasons: how satisfied someone is with what he has isn’t obvious to others so it isn’t given to comparison and hierarchy, and anyone who thinks he isn’t sufficiently “ashir” under this definition has only one way to address the issue –work on his own attitudes.

    Torah wisdom: there is also no doubt that some have more than others. But is attaining more a goal that has to do with competing with anyone else or rising in a “hierarchy”? I never thought of it this way –I thought when we increase our “Torah wisdom,” it’s for the purpose of understanding Torah (lishmah), not for rising in a hierarchy. If tomorrow I suddenly memorize (with good understanding and insight) the whole Talmud Bavli, then if I find out that my neighbor has memorized the whole Bavli and Yerushalmi, I should be delighted that the amount of Torah knowledge in the world has increased, not be disappointed that I haven’t “moved up” compared to others. One should seek to be “zanav l’arayot v’lo rosh l’shualim!”

    “Spiritual performance”: (This is the first time I can remember hearing this term –is it a translation of a term used by chazal or the rishonim? If so, which term? I am assuming I know generally what it means.) I don’t know how anyone other than HKB”H (maybe a Navi, but that isn’t relevant for us) can know what someone else’s spiritual performance is. In any event, I would think that one should view his own spiritual performance as not good enough, and that one shouldn’t be comparing oneself to others (except for the limited purpose of learning from someone else in order to improve)–so that in a sense, everyone ought to view himself as at the bottom of a pile in this area (or in any case certainly not at or near the top).

    So while I agree that learning from and implementing teachings of the Ramchal is worthwhile, I don’t see the premise here as a useful jumping off point to do so. I don’t deny that everyone has a yetzer hara and that not everyone follows this guidance all the time (which is one of the reasons we need the Ramchal) –but a community where there are recognized (even if informal) “hierarchies” in violation of these precepts is a bit hard to swallow.

  4. It’s essential for all Jews to speak and act with respect toward all other Jews, regardless of their relative positions in any hierarchy. While seeking honor can be a negative, respect is something we should get without seeking it out.

  5. Rabbi Reich, thanks for your comment. As I said, previously the words of the Ramchal and Ramban apply to everybody, not just BTs. We are all on the bottom of some hierarchies, (i.e. when you’re in a room of Gedolim) and the fear of the bottom is what makes us pursue honor, which is worse than being on the bottom.

    From a middos perspective, accepting, embracing and therefore eliminating the relevance of where you are on the hierarchy is what we need to do. When we do this and liberate ourselves from the quest for kavod and all the distractions it brings, we then can focus more on the individual growth steps we need to take.

  6. I greatly appreciated this article although I am offended by its title. Each of us is a tzelem elokim and a reflection of the divine. Referring to ones place in the community as ‘the bottom of the heap’ affirms the premise that the way others may view us will determine our self worth. The BT community displays sacrifice, courage and selflessness in a way most FFB’s never can or will be able to express. We will grow and blossom when we embrace our individuality without looking over our shoulder for affirmation from the landed gentry. As stated by Mark, there are communities in which it is easier to realize that goal.

  7. Martin, thanks for the comment. I don’t think this post applies only to BTs, although because of their upbringing they may find themselves near the bottom of the Torah Knowledge and Spiritual Accomplishment hierarchies when they begin. However, if they continue to learn and grow they often raise themselves to the middle and top, depending on their efforts and the levels of their community.

    I agree that people need to find a community where they have friends, but that doesn’t eliminate the reality of hierarchies.

    As far as where BTs should live, I agree with the conventional wisdom that the larger higher standard communities like Brooklyn, Lakewood and Monsey are difficult. Many BTs have found the communities of Passaic, Kew Gardens Hills and Baltimore quite suitable. While others prefer the more laid back, more out-of-townish communities. However, hierarchies will always exist and I believe the Ramban and Ramchal’s advice in regard to diminishing the need for honor and working on our humility are universal.

  8. As valid your comments may be, such a perception of a BT as “poor relations” within a kehilla is unacceptable and even toxic over time. A BT should make hishtadlus to find a shul in his community (or outside!) with people who are amenable to chaver and schmooze. This is-even in the long run- better than staying with one’s own kiruv sheeta if the individual feels poorly served.True Anivus cannot be equated with poor self-esteem and the passivity to let others be scornful and take advantage.

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