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.