Have you ever felt totally eclipsed by someone else? Maybe there’s something you’re good at, but someone in your life—a sister, a friend, a classmate, a coworker—is even better. What’s more, that person is also good at many other things that you can’t do at all. Around this person, your self-esteem crumbles.

When the one who outshines you is a distant celebrity, you may be content to worship from a distance. Around this person, your self-esteem crumblesBut when the star is someone close to you, it can be quite debilitating to live life in that person’s shadow. Your inner dialogue may sound something like this: “I thought I had a special gift, something unique to contribute to this world. But whatever I do, that person can do it better. Why do I even bother?”


Ethics of Our Fathers quotes Rabbi Chanina, deputy of the priests: “Pray for the welfare of the kingdom, for if not for the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”1

On the surface, this sounds like a straightforward comment on the importance of government. Without it, there would be anarchy. People would be robbing each other in the streets. Maybe even eating each other alive.

But Ethics of Our Fathers is a book of ethics, of character building, of going “beyond the letter of the law,” not a political treatise.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Rabbi Chanina meant this statement in a more figurative sense. It can sometimes happen that you “swallow up” another person. It’s not that you belittle them exactly, or make light of their accomplishments. But in your eyes their standing is minuscule, their contributions inessential. You don’t hear what they have to say, and indeed find it hard to imagine that they have anything worthwhile to say at all.

So what is the protection against swallowing up (or being swallowed) alive? The answer is, “Pray for the welfare of the kingdom.”

Our sages say, “The earthly kingdom is like the heavenly one.” The power of an earthly king comes from the King of all kings. When we “pray for the welfare of the kingdom,” what we actually pray for is that the divine kingship be expressed in this world. Before G‑d, all of us are equal. Before Him, there is no swallowing up or being swallowed. He created each of us with our own unique role and potential. Each of us has something to contribute that nobody else can.

Why does Rabbi Chanina direct us to “pray” for the welfare of the kingdom? Why not say “recognize” or “ponder” or “contemplate”? Because we can’t do it on our own. Living in a world of inequality, where some people seem so much smarter or more gifted or more capable than others, it’s very difficult to hold on to the recognition that G‑d desires our particular contribution. We must pray to G‑d for strength to overcome our feelings of inadequacy, to feel comfortable in the presence of people who outshine us, and to continue to do our part.

And we must pray to G‑d for humility, so that we don’t become the ones who swallow up others. We pray to sincerely recognize the qualities of every person we encounter, and to be as invested in the success of others as we are in our own.

I can think of no better embodiment of this passage than the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself. In his presence, we were all thoroughly humbledIn his presence, we were all thoroughly humbled. Yet nobody felt swallowed up. The Rebbe devoted his entire life to bringing out the maximum potential of each of his chassidim and of every person he came into contact with. The Rebbe never said, “Leave it up to me.” On the contrary, he said, “It’s all up to you.” He set high expectations for all of us, and never let us forget them.

Today, I pray for the welfare of the kingdom. I pray that G‑d give each of us the strength to do our part—our individual, indispensable part—to light up our surroundings, until the day that G‑d’s kingship will be fully revealed in our world.

(Based on a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Beurim le-Pirkei Avot, p. 110.)