Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
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25. The Pursuit of Honor

Honor is one of man's greatest stumbling blocks, and it is impossible for a person to serve God and be a truly faithful servant so long as he is concerned about his own honor. Indeed, according to the sages “there is no honor but Torah” (Avot 6:3).


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Ramchal (R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) discusses the quality of "cleanliness" at length. We spoke previously about jealousy; this time we will speak about the desire for personal honor.

The sages teach: "Jealousy, greed, and honor remove a person from the world." Great difficulties have come to the world on account of the pursuit of honor. What caused Korah and all of his followers to be destroyed? Their desire for personal honor. It is an explicit verse: "Do you also seek the priesthood?" (Numbers 16:10). The sages say that the entire argument of Korah was due to the fact that he saw that Elitzafan ben Uziel was a prince. Korah wanted to be prince instead of him.

According to our sages, personal honor is what caused the spies to slander the land of Israel. They were worried that they would lose their honored status when Israel entered the land, for they would be replaced as presidents by others. This led to their own death and the death of the entire generation because it is what caused the Sin of the Spies, the evil report of the land of Israel.

The desire for person pride is also what caused Saul to begin pursuing David. The women said: "Saul has slain his thousands and David his myriads," praising David more than Saul, and this is what caused Saul to become hostile to David.

Were it not for the pursuit of honor, people would be know how to be satisfied with what they have. Their livelihood come easily and they would not have to struggle and labor to raise their living standard all the time. However, people are unwilling to lag behind others. The desire for honor does not allow them to appear less than others.

Some people will bear the disgrace of hunger and receive charity from others before they stoop down to accept work that does not meet their standard of personal honor. They think that if they deal in simple labor their honor will be damaged. But the opposite is true.

This, however, is not true honor. The sages have already spoken about this matter, saying (Avot 1:10): "Love work and hate acting the superior," and (Pesachim 113a) "Skin a carcass in the marketplace and do not say 'I am an important person,' or 'I am a Cohen.'" It is preferable to deal in abject work and to make a living than to be idle and to be dependent on others. They also say (Baba Batra 110a): "A person should forever be ready to do work that is strange to him and not become dependent upon the public."

In sum, honor is one of man's greatest stumbling blocks, and it is impossible for a person to serve God and to be a truly faithful servant so long as he is worried about his own honor. The sages teach (Avot 6:3): "There is no honor but Torah, as it says: 'The wise shall inherit honor'" (Proverbs 3:35). Anything else is seeming, delusive honor, utterly meaningless and worthless, and one should cleanse himself of it completely.

Indeed, it is not at all simple to clean oneself of the desire for honor, but it is possible, and one needs to keep in mind that it is not as difficult as it seems at first sight. One who overcomes this trait in fact frees himself from bondage and attains happiness.
Some of the the translated biblical verses and talmudic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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