The Universal Law of Respect and Self-Respect

January 14, 2021

The Sefer Sha’arei Ha’avodah, a relatively unknown work of Rabbeinu Yonah, opens with the following powerful statement:

The very first gate that one must enter in his avodas Hashem is to understand their own worth, namely, recognizing their positive attributes and those of their forefathers, their greatness and importance in the eyes of the Creator. They should constantly strive and redouble their efforts to constantly maintain that level, seeking greater ma’alos and middos daily, to connect them to their Creator. Although difficult at first, the results will be highly successful. Should a sudden negative desire or haughty attitude arise, they will feel embarrassed of themselves and their ancestors, thinking, “How can someone as great and important as myself, one who possesses so many attributes and was born of noble lineage, do such terrible things, sinning to Hashem—and my ancestors—all the days of my life?”

The words that describe how we should view ourselves jump out at us: “someone as great and important as myself, one who possesses so many attributes.” We might wonder if we are reading correctly, or is the passage talking about someone else? Is a person allowed to think of themselves in such haughty terms? Are we really that great? That important?

We count

The answer is, obviously, yes. And a resounding yes at that.

Every word of Rabbeinu Yonah was carefully weighed and measured. Rav Akiva Eiger z”l would say that when Rabbeinu Yonahspoke, his words were not only mussar, but also the halachah.Therefore, when Rabbeinu Yonah wrote that “the very first gate that one must enter in his avodas Hashem is to understand their own worth, namely, recognizing their positive attributes,” we understand that this is a reality, a middah which we must improve, and a clear indication of a malaise of mankind.

And never has this malaise been so rampant as in our “numbers” generation. We have stopped measuring success by virtue of value; instead, we measure it by the number of people it affected. How many people attended the event. How many customers we targeted. The number of fatalities in Italy; deaths in the US. Numbers. Numbing Numbers.

We have forgotten the enormous importance of the individual. And by extension, we have forgotten about ourselves.

So, let us listen to Rabbeinu Yonah’s heilige, soothingwords a bit more:

Because when one who, Heaven forbid, does not recognize his own great worth, as well as that of his fathers, how easy it will be for him to follow in the ways of the transgressors, acting as a coarse ba’al ta’avah. This is best expressed in the common parable, “One who is not embarrassed of his own soul shows that his soul is of no value to him.” Therefore, a man who seeks to serve Hashem should constantly try to reach the great levels of tzaddikim and chassidim, their importance and closeness to Him. He should deeply understand that he can reach those great, important levels if his avodas Hashem resembles theirs in using every hour and minute to the best of his ability. This is what the Torah intended to teach us by saying, “Ki karov eilecha hadavar me’od—For the matter is very close to you”… Because Hashem only asks from man that which is in his power to achieve, just as our forefathers served Him according to the best of their understanding.”

Encouragingly, numbers can also connote importance. When the Torah counts Klal Yisrael, it refers to the count as “uplifting” the people, as it says, “Ki sisa es rosh Bnei Yisrael,” and “Se’u es rosh Bnei Yisrael.”When Kayin sinned, Hashem said, “Im teitiv s’eis—If you want to improve, lift yourself up.” The Torah is teaching us that although each of us is one of many, we count.

Respect emanates outward

If we will successfully achieve our goal of self-respect, our respect for others will grow in direct proportion. We will not feel threatened if we compliment or praise the successes of our friend, because we recognize our successes as well.

The Gemara says, “One who embarrasses his friend in public forfeits his share in the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 99). Rav Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l points out that the punishment seems to be out of proportion to the sin committed. While no one is doubting the seriousness of public character assassination—something that is compared to murder—nonetheless, we do not find that a murderer is excluded from the World to Come. How can an act that is only an abizrayhu d’retzichah, a subcategory of murder, be subject to greater punishment than murder itself?

To answer this question, Rav Kirzner introduces a fundamental rule of nature: the rule of respect for Hashem’s creation, as it says, “U’v’heichalo kulo omer kavod—In His sanctuary all bespeaks honor.” Why does Hashem need honor? Isn’t seeking honor a negative idea? The answer is that we are not referring to honor in the common conception, rather, we are referring to the respect ascribed to the components of nature.

Every component of Hashem’s world was created with a uniquely divine purpose. No two creations share an identical destiny. To benefit from a part of this world, one must ascribe the proper importance to it. Dovid Hamelech’s clothing did not provide warmth in his old age since, as Chazal explain, he cut off a corner of Shaul’s cloak. This action showed a lack of respect to clothing—and respect is a law of nature.

Therefore, says Rav Kirzner, one who embarrasses someone in public has effectively removed their ability to influence observers. Eliminating another person’s ability to improve the world is worse than killing them; all the important contributions they would have made are no longer possible. Therefore, middah keneged middah, this narrow-minded sinner is relieved of their portion in both worlds. They should find another planet to inhabit.

At times such as these, we can be sure that Hashem is counting us over and over again. When we hear the alarming numbers of Jewish corona fatalities, alarms go off in our heads, because we understand that each of these people was an entire world of their own, and their loss is an irreparable injury to the nation.

And so, let us adopt a new avodah. Let us contemplate the tremendous contributions these giants made when they scaled the heights of human potential. Let us appreciate what they have done. And let their purposeful lives inspire us to fulfill our tachlis by developing a realization of our own qualities and abilities.

Let us lift ourselves up and do great things.

As Rabbeinu Yonah writes, this awareness will serve as a shield when walking among the nations. When times of trial come, we will ask his timeless question: “How can I slip and fall if I am so important?”