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Don’t Get Swallowed Up

Don’t Get Swallowed Up


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.)

Avot 3:2.
Chaya Shuchat is the author of A Diamond a Day, an adaptation of the chassidic classic Hayom Yom for children, as well as many articles on the interface between Chassidism and contemporary life. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a master’s degree in nursing from Columbia University.
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Anonymous December 5, 2016

burden of giftedness Yes, I have many gifts, but suffered immensely in silence years of abuse by a sibling, under the nose of a narcissistic mother who ignored the abuse of her own daughter and made constant demands she do more, but no expectations at all for her sons. And what of the suffering never spoken will you know, instead only see from the outside never having to have walked a day in my shoes. And as an adult, still I carry her on my back despite her ignorance in how to rear me, all my successes my own in-spite of everything, never sorrow have a felt for my self. Think of it; I can do everything well because I have had to, no one else was there to do anything for me, no appreciation ever expected, no alternatives to lighten the load. Think not what other others have, but what you may favorably have avoided being put through. Would not wish it on anyone. One day I will be free finally free. No guilt or regrets. No fairy fathers in the sky either. Earth is my home, I make it heaven. Reply

Amy Mpls, MN June 15, 2015

Great Article G-d's gift to me of humility has freed me from a ravenous search to be "good enough" that was destroying my happiness. You have hit the nail on the head with this article... By trying to overcome that feeling of being 'swallowed up' sometimes you are engaging in a futile idolatry. Humility is the way free! Reply

Rus Devorah Buffalo June 11, 2015

GUT GEZOGT Thanks for this great distillation of The Rebbe's words. Well done! Reply

Anonymous Crown Heights, NY June 9, 2015

Well done! Beautifully written and a worthy path to follow. Thank you Chaya! Reply

M. S. Fenton NJ June 9, 2015

Misses the mark, for me I grew up in an Orthodox home and my grandfather, of blessed memory, was the dominant figure who created an atmosphere of intimidation. Everything I did or want to do was considered "goyish". It was stifling and this advice may be good if you are an adult...maybe...but when you are forming your value system and subjected to what I call "religious abuse" you are warped for life. I rejected Judaism as I know it and only after beginning to study with a good man, a Chabad Rabbi, have I begun to understand and approach reconciliation. Some advice and insight seventy years ago to my parents might have made a difference... Reply

Barbara Ellison WISTER June 9, 2015

Thank you.
From somewhere inside a whale's belly it seems... :) Reply

Chana Gittle Deray pittsburgh June 8, 2015

Thank you Chaya!!! Chaya , This is an amazing article!! So much strength to be gained!
Thank you from all who benefit, and I believe there will be many!!!​ Reply

Anonymous June 8, 2015

amazing I literally swallow your articles alive!!! Keep up the AMAZING work!!! Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.