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 achara of the animal soul.

In ch. 30, the Alter Rebbe continues this discussion by outlining another method of dealing with this problem.

One who suffers from timtum halev must also set his heart to fulfill the instruction of our Sages: “Be lowly of spirit before every man.”1

עוֹד זֹאת יָשִׂים אֶל לִבּוֹ, לְקַיֵּים מַאֲמַר רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה: "וֶהֱוֵי שְׁפַל רוּחַ בִּפְנֵי כּל הָאָדָם".

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 שִׁפְלוּת—literally, “lowliness,” and the latter—עַנִיווּת.

Since the Mishnah employs the adjective שְׁפַל רוּחַ, 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:

The wording implies: “Be thus,” and do not merely act thus, in all sincerity,

"וֶהֱוֵי" – בֶּאֱמֶת לַאֲמִיתּוֹ,

in the presence of every man, even in the presence of the most religiously irreverent people (kal shebekalim).

"בִּפְנֵי כָל הָאָדָם" – מַמָּשׁ, אֲפִילוּ בִּפְנֵי קַל שֶׁבְּקַלִּים.

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:

This can be accomplished by following the instruction of our Sages: “Judge not your fellow man until you have stood i.e., placed yourself in his place.”2

וְהַיְינוּ, עַל פִּי מַאֲמַר רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה: "אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵירָךְ – עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ".

For it is literally his “place” i.e., his physical environment that causes him to sin,

כִּי מְקוֹמוֹ גּוֹרֵם לוֹ לַחֲטוֹא,

since his livelihood requires him to go about the marketplace 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.”3

לִהְיוֹת פַּרְנָסָתוֹ לֵילֵךְ בַּשּׁוּק כָּל הַיּוֹם, וְלִהְיוֹת מִיּוֹשְׁבֵי קְרָנוֹת, וְעֵינָיו רוֹאוֹת כָּל הַתַּאֲווֹת, וְ"הָעַיִן רוֹאָה וְהַלֵּב חוֹמֵד",

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 Hosea, “It burns like a flaming fire.”4

וְיִצְרוֹ בּוֹעֵר "כְּתַנּוּר בּוֹעֵרָה מֵאוֹפֶה", כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בְּהוֹשֵׁעַ, "הוּא בוֹעֵר כְּאֵשׁ לֶהָבָה וְגוֹ'".

It is different, however, with he who goes about but little in the marketplace, and most of the day he is at home rather than at the street corners, and he therefore encounters less temptation.

מַה שֶּׁאֵין כֵּן מִי שֶׁהוֹלֵךְ בַּשּׁוּק מְעַט, וְרוֹב הַיּוֹם יוֹשֵׁב בְּבֵיתוֹ,

Even if he does go about the marketplace all day so that his physical “place” is the same as that of the kal shebekalim, 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.

וְגַם אִם הוֹלֵךְ כָּל הַיּוֹם בַּשּׁוּק, יָכוֹל לִהְיוֹת שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְחוּמָּם כָּל כָּךְ בְּטִבְעוֹ,

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.5

כִּי אֵין הַיֵּצֶר שָׁוֶה בְּכָל נֶפֶשׁ, יֵשׁ שֶׁיִּצְרוֹ כוּ', כְּמוֹ שֶׁנִּתְבָּאֵר בְּמָקוֹם אַחֵר.