The majority of us have been isolating at home the past many weeks. Recently, stores have started to reopen, and people have started to go out more. I personally have been instructed by my doctor to continue exercising great caution around others. Over the last 13 years since my injury I have compared myself to others many times. This practice has always left me with the pain of what I don’t have, and jealousy of what others possess. As Benjamin Franklin is quoted saying, “comparison is the thief of joy.” The list feels endless: knowing that others daven with a minyan and I don’t; seeing that other’s hands function in ways that mine don’t to pick things up, open bottles, cut their food and pick up a child; watching others run and wishing I could do the same; thinking about how long it takes me to get up and going in the morning and how nice it would be to be able to hop out of bed; knowing that people pass judgment when they see my physical presentation and dreaming of being seen as someone who is capable of performing; limited in what I can access and wishing I could walk, skip and jump to go where and do what I want; and being aware of how much my thoughts are consumed by the fragility of my health and how nice it would be to be like so many who don’t have the same concerns.
To address this, I seek comfort in my faith and trust in Hashem. He has given me everything I am supposed to have and everything I need to fulfill my purpose. Granted, sometimes this work is easier than others. There are times that I may look at others and say, “Gosh, I’m glad that one of my most significant challenges is dealing with a spinal cord injury and its baggage rather than contend with that person’s struggle!” However, this approach is far from ideal since it doesn’t include acknowledging that everything comes from Hashem. It also functions as a barrier to feeling empathy for others.
It is human nature is to compare ourselves to others and, in Judaism, there is a place for it as it says, “the jealousy of scribes increases wisdom.” We are allowed and encouraged to use comparison to others for the sole purpose of spiritual growth. Ultimately though, inappropriate comparison can lead to heartache and despondency.
There is a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos that gives us a key to the path to follow to be successful in focusing on ourselves in our relationship with the Almighty which, in truth, affects all areas of life. The Mishnah (4:1) states as follows:
בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם... אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ... אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ... אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹתּ...:
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man. Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination. Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot. Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings.
The Maharal points out that the Tanna does not answer the questions through a lens of comparison, e.g. the wise one is wiser than others, the strong one is stronger than others etc. To borrow language from Mori VeRabi, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, Ben Zoma is teaching us that we live in an “absolute” rather than “relative” world. Hashem views us as who we are compared to our best selves, not contrasted with others. To live in this world and the next successfully, we need to view ourselves as Hashem does. There is a tefillah in elokai netzor (nusach sefard) which it states, “Let others not be jealous of me and may I not be jealous of others.” The kavana I have when I say this is, “Please Hashem, let others not compare themselves to me and may I not compare myself to others in unhealthy ways.” The Master of the World has great confidence in us, as we say every morning when we open our eyes rabba emunasecha, greater is Your faith in me to do Your will today. As we wake up to each day, may we ask The Almighty for His help to know what His will is for us, His assistance to bring it to fruition and our resolve to focus on bringing our best selves to completion.