In the final verse of Parashat Yitro, the Torah commands, “You shall not ascend to My altar on steps, lest you reveal your nakedness upon it.” Walking up a set of stairs requires spreading one’s legs in a manner that would be inappropriate when ascending the altar to perform the service. The Torah therefore requires constructing a ramp, rather than a staircase, upon which to ascend to the altar.
Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, famously comments that this law reminds us of the extent to which we must ensure to avoid disrespecting other people: “If for these stones [of the altar], which do not have the knowledge to be disturbed by disrespect, the Torah says, ‘Since they serve a need, do not treat them in a disrespectful manner,’ then your fellow, who has the image of your Creator and is disturbed by disrespect – all the more so!”
It is worth noting that this comparison, between respect for the altar and treating others with dignity, is made specifically in the context of the means of ascending to the altar for the service. The height of the altar, which requires rising along a ramp, likely symbolizes the theme of self-growth, elevating oneself in the service of the Almighty. When we approach the “altar,” as we look to serve our Creator, we must make an effort to “ascend,” to become greater than we are currently. Possibly, the comparison drawn by Chazal between the altar and our fellow human being should be viewed in this light. Our Sages here urge us to regard our fellow as an altar, as offering us an opportunity for growth and ascent. Within virtually all people we can find a positive quality from which we can learn and which we can apply to our own lives and our own conduct. As the Mishna (Avot 4:1) famously teaches, a wise person learns from all other people. While we might occasionally be inclined to look down on others, feeling – perhaps justifiably – that we excel in areas in which they do not, the truth is that we have what to learn from all. Chazal urge us to search for the positive and admirable qualities of others that we can emulate, such that every encounter with another person can resemble the experience of serving God on the altar – an experience of ascent and self-improvement. When we approach other people with this mindset, then we will naturally respect the people around us, treat them with dignity, affection and concern, and find and seize countless opportunities for growth each day of our lives.