The Most Powerful Force

The Mesilat Yesharim (chapter 11) tells us that the most powerful force which drives a human is the desire for honor and respect. If not for this drive, says the Mesilat Yesharim, people would suffice with the bare minimum in life. People wouldn’t bother working hard to amass wealth. In general, what drives people to work hard and earn a lot of money is not the actual pleasure from the things they want to use the money for, but for the honor and respect that they bring. Human nature is to value people, including ourselves, to some extent or another, based on one’s financial status and the amenities he enjoys. The pain of feeling lower than others and having less than what is normal is unbearable to people. People will endure extreme ordeals in order to lift their social status. The root of all this is a person’s need to feel respected and honored. The Mesilat Yesharim says that a person can conquer his desires for money and all other pleasures in the world, yet still struggle with the desire for honor.

Korach’s Desire For Honor

Because this driving force is so powerful, the Mesilat Yesharim warns us that a person has to be very vigilant to stay away from it. It is a force that can drive a person to extreme evil, and cause himself great harm, both physically and spiritually. One of the examples the Mesilat Yesharim brings to demonstrate this point is in this week’s Torah reading. Korach created an uprising against Moses. Because of this great sin, he and all his followers were punished by God with an unnatural death. What caused Korach who was a wise and great person to commit such an awful deed? Our Sages tell us that it was his desire for honor. He craved the prestigious positions which others had.

True Self-Respect Comes From Within

Although pursuing honor can have terrible ramifications, at the same time, respect is a human need. The Alter of Slabodka asserts that this drive is so vital to the emotional health of a human being, that if a person would become completely devoid of respect, he would die. How does a person balance his need for respect while making sure it doesn’t lead him the wrong way?

The Alei Shur (Gate 2, Chapter 8) explains that the root of this drive is the need to feel valuable. Honor and respect give a person a sense of worth. Every human needs to feel that he is of value. A wise person recognizes his own intrinsic value. He values himself for his lofty soul, his virtues, his talents, his accomplishments and his unique role in this world. He has self-respect which infuses him with a healthy sense of value. He is not dependent on the opinions of others to feel his worthiness. When a person pursues honor from others, it is a sign that he is failing to recognize his true value. He craves external, superficial forms of honor in order to feel his own significance.

One Pursuing Honor Cannot Properly Serve God

Even if one does not end up like Korach did, the Mesilat Yesharim says that a person cannot really be a true loyal servant of God so long as he is concerned with his personal honor. A person who is busy with his own honor will end up prioritizing it over the honor of his Creator. When a person fulfills his need for respect by recognizing his importance as a servant of God, then this need does not interfere with his loyalty to God. On the contrary, it will only reinforce it, since this is what gives him his sense of value. A person who focuses his drive for honor to receive it from others, can end up compromising every moral standard, and ruin his life, both in this world and in the World to Come.

Rav Shach’s Distaste For Honor

Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach was one of the most admired individuals in his days. In his older years, he was recognized as the leading rabbi of the generation. Despite this, he refused to be honored in any way. He would take care of house chores himself, and when he did errands, he always insisted on waiting his turn in line like everyone else. When he would attend an event, he would always ask that they refrain from calling him up by his name, so that no titles of honor would be mentioned. One time, when he attended the wedding of a grandchild, he saw that a special stage was set up for him. His face contorted with displeasure and he exclaimed, “What did you do here?!” He was so revolted with the honor that he decided on the spot to leave the wedding.

A Wise Man Runs Away From Honor

This is the way of the wise. Not only does a wise person not pursue honor, he distances himself from it. While every person needs basic respect, unnecessary honor can be dangerous. A wise person learns to value and respect himself. The pursuit of honor can be very enticing. We naturally crave the admiration of others to feel our worthiness, and we enjoy being honored. It is not something we can do away with overnight. But we can all work on gradually distancing ourselves from the great pitfall of pursuing honor. It is a worthwhile investment which is sure to spare us much agony in the long run.

By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber

Please follow us and share:

Want constant access to online Torah and Jewish resources?

First Name: 
Last Name: 
Leave a Reply