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Social Comparisons

Most of us tend to compare ourselves with others. In the mid-1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the “social comparison theory” which maintains that the purpose of this tendency is to provide more accurate self-evaluations, which can then lead to self-enhancement. Sometimes we make downward social comparisons, comparing ourselves to someone who we judge as being less advanced than us in a particular area. At other times we make upward social comparisons, measuring ourselves against people who exceed our own levels. For the most part, we compare ourselves to people who have characteristics similar to our own. If the other person was too far removed from us, the comparison would not provide any meaningful information.

One interesting manifestation of this concept is associated with the ways in which we relate to the stories of our great religious leaders. One approach is to emphasize their transcendent and pristine status, which in turn should garner awe and reverence. In an important passage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch disagrees with this approach, one which deliberately ignores the flaws of the patriarchs and matriarchs. He writes (Bereishit 12:10) that “The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great people.” This does not diminish from their greatness, but rather, renders them “greater and more instructive.” If they were perfect, without struggles of their own, then they would not serve as effective models for us to emulate. In other words, upward social comparison would not be beneficial if we could not relate to our role models.

Yet, there is one context where the Torah explicitly tells us that no comparison can be made. After Moshe’s death, the Torah states that “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom God knew face to face” (Devarim 34:10). Moshe cannot serve as a model for those seeking to become prophets, and therefore, the comparison itself is likely to be unhelpful.

Moshe’s prophetic status precludes him from being the target of social comparison, which makes the following statement of the Rambam even more powerful. Rambam explains that the concept of free will is crucial, and writes that God does not decree in utero whether a person will be righteous or wicked. Rather, everyone has the capability to shape his or her personality to be good or evil (Hilchot Teshuva 5:2). To emphasize this point, he writes that “[e]very person is capable of being as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu or as wicked as Jeroboam.” Remarkably, this formulation is not made explicit in previous Rabbinic literature, and Rambam could have made the same point without invoking Moshe as a model for comparison. There seems to be a contradiction between Rambam mentioning Moshe, and the verse which indicates Moshe is beyond comparable.

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman explains that Rambam must be distinguishing between prophecy, in which we cannot possibly attain the status of Moshe, and righteousness, where every person can reach Moshe’s level (Kovetz Maamarim, p. 56). While no one can attain Moshe’s prophetic status, Rambam deems Moshe a viable option for upward social comparison in terms of righteousness.

Yet, as Rabbi Wasserman notes, it is still rather baffling to say that everyone can be as righteous as Moshe. It seems too high a level to attain. To make the concept slightly more practical and relatable, he notes that Moshe is known as an eved Hashem, “a servant of God” (Devarim 34:5). Radak (Yehoshua 1:1) explains that eved Hashem means that all his efforts, motivations, and actions were dedicated to God. While this level is difficult to achieve, Rabbi Wasserman contends that anyone can attain it. Rambam did not necessarily mean that everyone can accomplish the same as Moshe, but that everyone could maximize their own moral and spiritual potential by being a servant of God, just as Moshe did on his level.

What emerges from this analysis is that while comparisons can and should be inspirational, it is essential for people to recognize their limits. Not everyone can achieve the same as others in every area of life. We may not have Moshe’s potential, but we do have the ability to maximize our own potential. We can view others as role models, but we also need to be firmly rooted in our own self-awareness. Our goals should be aspirational, yet realistic, as we continually strive to improve ourselves. The ultimate goal is to become a servant of God by actualizing our own potential, not by comparing ourselves unrealistically to the accomplishments of others.


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