The Talmud (Megillah 3b) presents a hypothetical scenario: It's the evening of the festival of Purim and you are walking to the synagogue hear the reading of the Megillah. On the way, you come across a corpse lying in the road. Jewish law obligates us to bury a dead body, but of course that takes time, and if you stop to fulfill this commandment, you won't be able to fulfill the other commandment to hear the Megillah reading. What to do -- bury the body, or continue to the synagogue?
The Talmud says that you bury the body because of the honor due to a human being. What the Sages are teaching is that every human being -- even a dead one -- is due honor. And if the obligation to honor the humanity in a corpse is so compelling, how much more so a living person!
The rabbis often encourage us to do positive acts which we are not naturally and easily inclined toward. We don't need much inducement to eat, wash, beautify ourselves, or gratify our needs, but for many of us, honoring other people doesn't come easily. Being critical and harshly judgmental of others comes much more easily. When we see only their flaws and failings, what's to honor? We focus on the soiled garment, ignoring the divinely inspired being within.
We walk into a room and immediately scan the crowd, putting everyone who is there through an instantaneous evaluation. It can get pretty ugly, and few of us would likely ever verbalize the sorts of things that routinely run through our mind.
She wore that?
Just look at the stupidity in that dumb face!
Such a slouch. Stand up straight, why don't you?
She still smokes?
I'll stop and let you continue. What sort of things do you say (inwardly to yourself, of course) when that judgmental frame of mind exerts its grip, and you are moving through life as if someone appointed you chief judge, assessing whether or not people measure up to your expectations?
Does this judgmental attitude ever lead to anything other than disappointment and dissatisfaction in everyone around us?
Where is there even a hint of honor in that attitude?
Honor, respect, dignity and love are due to each and every human being, not because of the greatness of their achievements, but because they are home to a soul that is inherently holy. Nobody created his or her own soul; everyone has been gifted with a rarefied essence. This is a teaching of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a forerunner of the Mussar movement, who explains that one should honor all people simply because they are the handiwork of God. (Ruach Chaim on Pirkei Avot)
We need tradition to draw our attention to this deep reality because it isn't readily evident to us. Our eye easily catches the flaws in the trappings. Imagine someone sent you a painting by Picasso or Chagall, and all you could see was the dirty, tattered packaging in your hands?
What drives us to be so critical of others is our own search for honor.
So why do we do it? Why do we set up standards against which to gauge others -- and then spend so much of our mental energy appraising how they measure up? I believe it's because we have anxiety about how we ourselves are stacking up. We judge others, find them wanting, and thus appear less so to ourselves. What drives us to be so critical of others is nothing other than our own search for honor, especially in our own eyes.
There is a profound and sad reality in this. Many people just don't love themselves enough and in the right way. In the Mussar work, we are always looking for soul-traits that we can elevate and improve, and that means we are awake to our imperfections. But even that self-awareness and effort ought to happen in an atmosphere of self-love.
We deserve to honor ourselves -- not because we are perfect, or even great, or even good, or so-so some of the time. Your greatness is not attached to your accomplishments, but rather to your soulful essence that is a gift of incomparable beauty and majesty.
The Mussar teachers are insistent that we distinguish the honor we accord our own soul (as we ought to show respect to all souls) from the desire of the hungry ego to slurp up every bit of honor it can possibly get a hold of. This tendency of the ego is the archenemy of humility. "Flee from honor," they warn us. Yet in their wildest dreams they never could have imagined the extent to which our modern culture elevates personal honor, and sends us off on an endless and misguided search for pedestals onto which to hoist ourselves.
It's not hard to see the direct connection between the ego's insistent but unquenchable craving for honor and that critical state of mind in which we stand ourselves in fierce judgment over others. We mentally judge and criticize other people when all we really want is love and honor for ourselves. The wisdom of tradition tells us that when we act that way, we've got the whole thing backwards. Ben Zoma asks: "Who is worthy of honor?" And he answers: "The one who honors others" (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
"Who is worthy of honor? The one who honors others."
This is a cornerstone teaching. We merit honor by giving honor. And our tendency is to withhold honor because we want honor. Could we get it any more wrong than that?
To turn things right way round, we have to develop the habit of offering honor to others. The first step in that direction is to catch yourself whenever you're being inwardly judgmental and critical. If that's your tendency, then equip yourself with a short phrase that you can call into mind right after you've caught yourself in a judgmental put-down, a phrase like "before me is a holy soul" or "this one too was created in God's image." The idea is to refocus your attention toward the essential and away from whatever trivial detail your judging mind may have seized on.
Once you've reoriented your thought process, you can cultivate a positive in place of the negative. For example, one form of honoring about which tradition has a lot to say is the act of greeting people. Pirkei Avot (4:20) urges us to "take the initiative in greeting any person you meet," and the Talmud relates that no one ever greeted Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai before he greeted them, not even a stranger in the marketplace.
This is a practice any of us can do. When you encounter another person, say, "Hello, nice to see you." And we call this spiritual practice! How sensible. I urge you to try it. When you are the first to honor another, you come forward from humility, and for this, others will honor you, too.