A Tail Among Lions
Rabbi Masya son of Cheresh used to say: be first in greeting every man. Be a tail among lions rather than a head to foxes. - Avos 4:20
The above quoted text appears to be two axioms rather than one. The former seems to be simpler and straightforward. In the second perek of Pirkei Avos Rebbi Akiva told us that all of mankind is supremely dear because Man was created (in the metaphysical sense) in the image of Hashem. It may therefore be incumbent upon us to demonstrate this dearness by making sure to greet all humans. The second aphorism is a bit cryptic.
The preceptors cited throughout Pirkei Avos were the greatest Torah leaders of their times. Logic would dictate that they each provided much advice and many sagacious comments throughout their lives. Nevertheless, in Pirkei Avos only select teachings are included. Thus it would seem that these aphorisms aren't merely simple proverbial pieces of advice but rather constitute poignant life messages. It would appear that all the quotes, from each Tanna, are ethos by which these sacred teachers lived. It is in this light that we must approach each mishna. We must analyze them well so as to absorb and integrate these ethical teachings into our thought and conduct.
The first part of Reb Masya's teaching impresses on us gadlus ha'adam – Man's greatness. It should be noted that the Hebrew word for greeting is Shalom. Shalom is one of Hashem's names. Most terms used in lashon-hakodesh for greeting someone also use a cognomen of Hashem. When we greet someone we are in effect demonstrating that we recognize that person’s existence. When we recognize our fellow's existence we have essentially recognized his imago Dei (being created in the image of Hashem). Man's being created in the image of Hashem is essentially the source but not the end point for His greatness. Man only achieves true greatness if His potential is at least somewhat actualized.
When we are infants we begin to discover this world. Instinctively we begin to imitate our parents because they are the first greater beings that we discover. By viewing our parents as role models we are aggrandizing them and what they do. We begin to look up to them because they are great and we therefore wish that we too can be like them. If our parents are truly deserving of this respect we will likely continue to respect them forever. However, since we know our parents from up close, if they are not honor-worthy people we will over the years pick up on their faults. This innate notion of imitating our parents comes from the fact that in our early developmental stages we view our parents as our creators and caretakers. This is an essence a microcosm of imitato Dei – imitating Hashem.
Thomas Paine was a famous American Revolutionist. He was considered one of the most influential personalities of the American Revolution. At the end of his life, after the success of the American Revolution he attempted to make an anti-Christian revolution. His recommended brand of religion was based purely on his belief in an interactive creator who should be worshiped by imitating this creator’s virtues of mercy. He fell very short of discovering the full truth (Yidishkeit) but he was able to discover the most natural level of religion — something which is fundamental to Avodas Hashem*. He discovered the idea of imitating the greatest greatness one could fathom.
If we see greatness in everyone we run the risk of admiring the wrong people. Man is great because He is created in the image of Hashem. This does not, however, mean that all of mankind has actualized its greatness. After focusing on the Divine Image in everyone we might accidentally begin to be influenced by too many wrong people.
Perhaps Rebbi Masya is telling us that we must have unequivocal respect for all human beings because they are created in the image of Hashem. But this concept of imago Dei doesn't automatically translate into a person being amazing. It is for that reason that Rebbi Masya is warning us not to imitate just anyone. He is telling us that we should never accept ourselves as being the greatest around. We must rather always seek those who are greater than us. We must always strive to become greater. That, however, can only come from placing ourselves as a tail to lions. By doing so we are essentially constantly placing ourselves under the influence of true greatness.
*We have a mitzvah of והלכת בדרכיו - דברים כח, ט . This mitzvah is very specific in its nature. See Rashi on the above passuk and Rambam Hilchos Daios 1, 11; for us imitato Dei is not just a natural tendency or fundamental, rather it is a mitzvah.