In ch. 29 the Alter Rebbe discussed various means of overcoming timtum halev — the state of insensitivity in which one’s heart is dull, and unresponsive to his contemplation of G‑d’s greatness. All these methods are aimed at crushing one’s spirit, whereby one crushes the cause of the timtum halev — the arrogance of the sitra achraof the animal soul.
In ch. 30, the Alter Rebbe continues this discussion by outlining another method of dealing with this problem.
עוד זאת ישים אל לבו לקיים מאמר רז״ל: והוי שפל רוח בפני כל האדם
One who suffers from timtum halev must also set his heart to fulfill the instruction of our Sages:1 “Be lowly of spirit before every man.”
Now a number of commentators have noted a difficulty in this Mishnaic dictum. For the Hebrew language distinguishes between two types of humility: the first is a feeling of inferiority in comparison with others; the second is the absence of self-glorification even while recognizing one’s superiority — the thought that his superior qualities are a G‑d-given gift, and that another man similarly endowed might in fact have invested them to better advantage.
The former type of humility is called שפלות — literally, “lowliness”, and the latter —.עניוות
Since the Mishnah employs the adjective שפל רוח , it is explicitly advocating the former type of humility, and here the difficulty arises: Why should one regard himself as being lowlier than every man, lowlier even than the lowliest sinner?
Because of this difficulty, some commentators interpret the Mishnah as saying:“Conduct yourself self-effacingly toward every man,” i.e., “Treat every man with deference, as though he were superior to you.”
The Alter Rebbe, however, objects to this interpretation, as follows:
והוי באמת לאמיתו
The wording implies: “Be thus,” and do not merely act thus, in all sincerity,
בפני כל האדם ממש, אפילו בפני קל שבקלים
in the presence of every man, even in the presence of the most worthless of worthless men (kal shebekalim).
Having rejected this interpretation, however, we remain with the original difficulty: How is one expected to regard himself as being lowlier than the lowliest sinner?
In answer, the Alter Rebbe states that the introspective Beinoni will find that he often fails to wage war against his evil inclination to the same extent as the sinner is required to wage war against his desires. Although the lapses of the Beinoni may be in seemingly inconsequential matters, they are more reprehensible than the lowly sinner’s transgressions. Thus, even the Beinoni, whose observance of the Torah and mitzvot is impeccable, can indeed regard himself as being lowlier than literally every man, as the Alter Rebbe goes on to say:
והיינו על פי מאמר רז״ל: אל תדין את חבירך עד שתגיע למקומו
This can be accomplished by following the instruction of our Sages:2“Judge not your fellow man until you have stood i.e., placed yourself in his place.”
כי מקומו גורם לו לחטוא
For it is literally his “place” i.e., his physical environment that causes him to sin,
להיות פרנסתו לילך בשוק כל היום ולהיות מיושבי קרנות, ועיניו רואות כל התאוות, והעין רואה והלב חומד
since his livelihood requires him to go about the market-place all day, and whenever he is not thus engaged he is of those who sit at the street-corners. Thus his eyes see all sorts of temptation; and “‘what the eyes see, the heart desires.”
ויצרו בוער כתנור בוערה מאופה, כמו שכתוב בהושע: הוא בוער כאש להבה וגו׳
Additionally it may be his spiritual “place”, the nature of his evil impulse, that leads him to sin: his evil nature burns like a baker’s fiery oven, which is heated with greater frequency and intensity than a domestic oven, as it is written in Hoshea:3“It burns like a flaming fire.”
מה שאין כן מי שהולך בשוק מעט, ורוב היום יושב בביתו
It is different, however, with him who goes about but little in the market-place, and most of the day he is at home rather than at the street-corners, and he therefore encounters less temptation.
וגם אם הולך כל היום בשוק, יכול להיות שאינו מחומם כל כך בטבעו
Even if he does go about the market-place all day, so that his physical “place” is the same as that of the kal shebekalim, yet it may be that his spiritual “place” is different, in that he is not so passionate by nature, and is therefore not as greatly tempted by the sights of the market-place.
כי אין היצר שוה בכל נפש: יש שיצרו כו׳, כמו שכתוב במקום אחר
For the evil impulse is not the same in everyone. One person’s nature may be more passionate, and the other’s less so, as explained elsewhere.4
But if the misdeeds of the kal shebekalim are indeed attributable to his environment and to his passionate nature, why does he deserve his derogatory appelation? To this the Alter Rebbe replies: