Knowing One's Place - Middah Makir et Mekomo

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Makir et Mekomo translates as “knowing one's place.” The Hebrew word mekom means "place" and makir comes from the Hebrew root mem-kaf-reish meaning "to know," as in “to have a relationship with someone.”

"Mark well these three things, and you will not fall into the clutches of sin. Know where you came from, where you are going, and to whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning." (Akavyah ben Mahalalel, Pirkei Avot, 3:1)

Our text, taken from Pirkei Avot, serves as a reminder that part of maintaining a balance in life is knowing and accepting our own place in the larger scheme of things. (Voices of Wisdom, Klagsbrun, p.6) The text goes on to suggest that we all begin and end our lives in exactly the same way and that we are all ultimately accountable to God.

"Knowing who you are and knowing what your place is, can lead you to knowing who and what you want to become. You may need to strive to become the person you want to become. Striving for something is not necessarily contradictory to "knowing your place" as long as your striving is not mean spirited and you do not hurt others and destroy relationships along the way." (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.211)

According to Tiferes Yisrael, makir et mekomo (knowing one's place) refers to self-knowledge. One must have an honest estimate of oneself, and recognize one's own inadequacies in order to be ready to strive for more Torah knowledge and wisdom. The Maharal writes: “Only one who senses he is lacking something will seek out the Torah, which brings completion to the incomplete.” (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.418)

Each of us is unique. Knowing your place means understanding what it is that makes you different from everyone else you know. The following Chasidic story, told in the form of a riddle, helps to illustrate this point.

A man said to Mendel of Kotzk: "This one is greater than that one." He replied, "Why make comparisons? If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am truly I and you are truly you. But if I am I only because you are you, and if you are you only because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you." (Day by Day, p.56)

Rabbi Susan Freeman cautions us that it is easy to become arrogant and judgmental about the world around you and to look down on some people. But the knowledge that all people and things have their place can help you be more accepting of your place in the world. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, Freeman, p.219) The Talmudic sage, Ben Azzai, offered similar advice when he said: "Do not despise anyone. Do not underrate the importance of anything, for there is no one that does not have his/her hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place." (Pirkei Avot 4:3)

To Talk About

  1. Explain the advice contained in the opening text by Akavyah ben Mahalalel in your own words. Do you think that this is good advice? Why or why not?
  2. Read the riddle that Mendel of Kotzk posed again. What does it mean? Do you agree with its conclusion?
  3. The Talmudic sage, R. Joshua Shapira, wrote, "A person's first knowledge should be to know himself." (Words of the Wise, Alcalay, p.263) Why is it so important to "know oneself"? Why should this be a person's first knowledge? What can "knowing oneself" lead to?
  4. There is a Yiddish proverb that asks, "If I try to be like someone else, who will be like me?" (Day by Day, Stern, p.55) What do you think makes you unique? What role do you play in your family as a result of "knowing your place"?
  5. Sometimes the expression "know your place" is used to put people down or to remind them that they must show respect to those who are in a higher position. Compare this interpretation to the meanings expressed in the Commentary section.
  6. "Knowing your place" is one of the 48 virtues (middot) through which we acquire Torah. Explain why the sages decided that makir et mekomo is a virtue considered necessary for "acquiring Torah"?

To Do
"Knowing your place" can lead to a life of satisfaction and accomplishment. Complete the following statement: "To know your place" means _______.” Try writing about "knowing your place" in the following:

  • Your family
  • Your peer group
  • Your school or business
  • Your synagogue

If you feel unhappy or dissatisfied with your place in any of these areas, what positive things might you do to make it different? Make a list of goals for the future and try working on them, one by one.