A Matter of Perspective

A property-owner once decided that it was time to get rid of the wooden ladder that leaned against his house and gave trespassers and would-be robbers easy access to his roof.

“Take it down,” he instructed his servant.

The latter, not having been blessed with an abundance of intelligence, proceeded to do so in the most awkward of fashions.

As he steadily climbed up the ladder, on each step he broke the rung beneath him. He somehow managed to make it all the way to the roof but then, looking down and gaping in wonder, he discovered that he had no way down.

Down in the courtyard, bystanders stood and mocked him.

“You should have first gone to the roof and then, on your way down, broken each rung above you — from top to bottom,” they laughed at him.

Only with considerable difficulty did they manage to bring him down from the roof.

The next morning, the landowner gave his servant a similar assignment.

“I don’t want everyone to have access to the deep pit in the courtyard,” he said. “Break the rungs of the ladder that descends into the pit.”

The servant dutifully began to descend the ladder, remembering the near-disaster of the day before and recalling the admonition of the bystanders.

“Top to bottom,” he had memorized. “Top to bottom.”

Sure enough, as he descended the ladder, he made sure to break each rung above him.

By the time he made it down to the bottom of the pit, he was exactly in the same position as the day before — stuck, with no way out.

Once again he was the laughing-stock of the courtyard.

“You should have worked from the bottom up, breaking the ladder below you…”

“But that’s the exact opposite of what you told me yesterday,” the not-too-bright servant insisted. “Then you said from top to bottom…”

They explained that it all depended on the circumstances.

“When you are dealing with a ladder up to a roof you work from top to bottom,” they told him. “But when you are dealing with a ladder descending into a pit, you break it as you go up from the bottom to the top.”

The Ben Ish Chai teaches us that this seemingly simple parable contains a profound lesson, with which he homiletically explains a passuk in this week’s parashah.

Each of us is created with two components: the physical body with materialistic desires, and a soul with spiritual needs.

We have a tendency to constantly look around and compare ourselves with those around us.

We have two choices. We can either contrast ourselves with those “above” us — those who have more than we do — or those “below” us, who have less than we do.

When it comes to material needs the eyes of some people are on what is “above
them,” and they find that they are constantly falling short. There is always a neighbor who has a nicer house or a fancier car. They may have gotten a hefty bonus, but the fellow on the next block is still making more money, and everyone knows it.

Yet when it comes to their spiritual health, their eyes aim at what is “below them,” and they manage to find someone who is in worse spiritual shape than they are. Relative to the other fellow they are doing quite well, and this absolves them of any guilt feelings in regard to their shortcomings.

In essence they are acting precisely like that foolish servant, and are the laughing-stock of the universe.

This week the Torah (Shemos 20:4) states “which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below…”

The road to a successful and happy life is to know when to look where.

When it comes to the heavens — matters of spirituality — one should always look up, comparing his spiritual condition with that of those greater than him. Invariably he will discover areas for improvement and room for growth. The very fact that others managed to reach their levels should serve as an impetus and encourage us to set our sights higher and constantly ascend on the ladder of avodas Hashem.

When it comes, however, to the “earth” — material matters — we should always be looking down and contrasting what we have with what others have that is less than ours.

Yes, we may have a low-paying job, or the business isn’t bringing in what it once did. But compared to those who are unemployed, our situation may not be so bad after all. Even the unemployed can find someone in a more precarious position.

The apartment might be crowded and stuffy — but baruch Hashem, we do have a place to live.

As Shevet Mussar reminds us, one should not wallow in misery over his situation, for something might occur that would make his life far more unbearable, and then he will yearn for his previous life.

Happiness is not about wealth and comfort but about perspective and attitude. May we all merit internalizing this fact.

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