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Your Fellow’s Honor Should Be As Precious To You As Your Own

This coming Monday, January 20, is designated as Dr. Martin Luther King Day across the United States. So significant was Dr. King’s message to us as American’s that President Reagan signed the commemoration of this day into law in 1983. It has been officially observed in all 50 States since 2000.

Dr. King’s life focus revolved around the commands of the Torah that we refer to as “mitzvot between individuals and their fellow h, מצות בין אדם לחברו.” This is not to say that the “mitzvot between humanity and God, מצות בין אדם למקום ” were not important to him but how we treat our fellow human beings reflected to him a person’s true inner core. 

We should not be surprised at Dr. King’s emphasis on interpersonal relationships. He was after all, a minister first and foremost. Our Bible, and in particular the words of our Prophets, played a formative role in his calling. What was the main thrust in all the messages of our Prophets? It was not about our failure to keep Shabbat, kashrut and other religious rituals. Rather their messages to the people of Israel centered primarilyon mitzvot between man and man. “Only with this may one laud himself, discernment in knowing Me, for I am Hashem Who does kindness, justice and righteousness in the land. For in these is My desire, the words of Hashem.” (Jeremiah 9:23, the end of the Haftorah for Tisha b’Av). What is it that man can praise himself about? Emulating God in actions of kindness, justice and righteousness to his fellow man. 

In the section of our Oral Torah known as Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of our Sages,” we come across the following statement in chapter 2, Mishnah 15. (Art Scroll Siddur) “Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Let your fellow’s honor be as precious to you as your own.'” What is Rabbi Eliezer teaching us by this statement? 

Commenting on this Mishnah, Rabbenu Yonah writes that the scholars of the Oral Law would recite this statement every day. From this remark by Rabbenu Yonah we can infer that if this statement was reviewed every day by our Torah scholars, its message must be of the utmost importance for achieving personal perfection. What is the idea contained in this statement?

Rabbenu Yonah goes on to say, “A person should run after the honor of his fellow the way he runs after his own honor. He should desire that they honor his friend the same way he desires honor for himself.” First of all, how is this attitude possible to achieve? Honor means you are singled out, you are recognized for being unique or distinguished in some valuable way.How can you want another to be singled out as yourself? Furthermore, a person shouldn’t run after his own honor, so how can a person run after another’s honor? 

The answer and key to understanding this statement of Rabbi Eliezer is in distinguishing between two attitudes or two ways we can look at honor: personal honor versus objective honor. When a person is honored, we must ask ourselves on what are we focused.Do we focus on his or her personal accomplishment? If so, then Pirkey Avot is asking to do something which is psychologically and philosophically unhealthy, to deny our human emotions. Operating with this attitude, there can be no accruing human perfection. No person can honestly run after his fellow’s honor as his own if this is his framework of honor. The system of Judaism never asks a person to do that.

However, if we look at the honor bestowed on an individual as reflective of what the species man can achieve, then you are relating to the essence of mankind, “the image of God,” that comprises every single human being. With this attitude, we recognize that a human being represents the handiwork of God. Man has intellect and wisdom; he represents the “image of God.” It is that quality which warrants our honor. 

A person is deserving of honor, not so much for the individual accomplishment, but for what he or she reflects about the potential within the nature of mankind.Then it is possible to run after the honor of our fellow man as we would our own. It is actualization of the “image of God,” the commonality of mankind, that we are then honoring. We are honoring the “image of God,” that unique endowment possessed by mankind. This feature alone allows us to have a relationship with God and makes each individual achievement possible. 

This kind of attitude towards honor cuts through race, color, ethnicity, and gender. When human interactions and relationships operate from this perspective, negative feelings, bias or prejudice cannot take hold. The great Sages recognized in themselves the need to review this idea daily, how much more so should we!

 Everyone possesses “the image of God.” It is that unique human quality that makes all human endeavor and accomplishment worthy of honor. In honoring the individual, simultaneously you are honoring the “image of God” that exists within all of us. If you truly accept that the words of the Torah, “all mankind are created in the image of God,” how could you not run to treat another human being with “kindness, justice, and righteousness?” How could you not treat every person but with dignity, equality and respect. 

As our nation marks this Monday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, take a moment to reflect on his work and accomplishments, the centerpiece of which comes directly from the words of our Prophets and Torah. His mission was on behalf of all human beings. It is truly worthy of our honor.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan