We recite Pirke Avos every Shabbos during the summer. Do we hear what we read?
Self-esteem is the cornerstone of good health, both emotional and physical. Unwarranted feelings of inferiority and inadequacy can be crushing, resulting in depression and in a variety of self-defeating behaviors. The self-concept affects one’s ability to learn and to grow, to relate to others—family, friends, work and even to G-d.
But how does a person form a self-concept? Very often by how he sees himself valued by others. The Torah makes this very clear. The spies sent by Moses to scout Canaan reported that the land was inhabited by giants. “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Whereupon Rebbe Yitzhak Meir of Gur commented, “The way you feel about yourself is the way you assume other people see you.”
In other words, you are not what you think you are, and you are not what other people think you are. Rather, you are what you think other people think you are, and you may be in error about that. Most people depend on other people for their self-concept. They are approval seekers, believing that love, acceptance, security and salvation are all dependent on doing what others approve of.
But what do others approve of? What do they value? In today’s Torah world people are generally esteemed either because they are very learned, very wealthy, or have achieved some type of prominence. But where does that leave the “average Joe?” Although he may have some Torah knowledge, he is not an outstanding scholar, and although he can pay his bills, he is not particularly wealthy. He feels lost in the shuffle, and passes this feeling on to his children.
I believe that this was the scene upon which the Baal Shem Tov came. The oppressive conditions under which the Jews in Russia and Poland lived did not allow many people to become very learned. I am told that the number of students in Lakewood today exceeds the number of students in all the pre-World War I yeshivos in Europe! Many Jews did not get a post- cheder education. They knew some Chumash and a smattering of Mishnayes and Ein Yaakov. Most lived very frugal lives in the small shtetl. The wealthiest citizen in the village became the town parness (community administrator) or appointed the parness and controlled him. Although the Rav and the parness were often at odds, they were, nevertheless, the only significant people in the community. The average person in the community could not feel very significant.
In addition to the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching of Chasidic principles, he championed the common man. “Do you realize,” he said, “that when a man comes home from work and says, ‘Oy! It is only a few minutes before sunset!’ and hurriedly davens Mincha, do you realize that angels tremble before the holiness of his prayer?”
One Shabbos at Seuda Shlishis, the Baal Shem Tov was expounding profound meanings of the Torah to his disciples, while in the anteroom, the simple folk were reciting Tehillim(Psalms). Rebbe Dov of Mezeritch, who was the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, thought “How fortunate we are, that we can learn Torah from the master, not like those simple folk, who can only recite Tehillim.” Abruptly, the Baal Shem Tov told his disciple to put their hands on their neighbor’s shoulder, and he put his hands on the shoulders of the disciples to his right and left, completing the circle. Suddenly, they felt themselves transported to heaven, where they heard sweet voices reciting verses of Tehillim. One said, “Heavenly Father, my soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You.” Another said, “Oh, that I had wings like the dove! I would fly off and find rest.” Rebbe Dov was moved to tears, thinking, “If only I could recite Tehillim with such depth of feeling!” The Baal Shem Tov then lifted his hands, and the trance was broken.
The Baal Shem Tov said to his disciples, “The sweet rendering of Tehillim that you heard was that being recited by the simple folk in the anteroom.” The learned disciples were envious of the heartfelt devotion of which the simple folk were capable.
This is further illustrated by an anecdote of Rebbe Shalom Ber of Lubavitch, who was asked by one of his chasidim why he shows so great favor to the simple folk. This chasid was a diamond merchant. The Rebbe asked, “Can you show me some of your wares?”, whereupon the chasidshowed him a packet of diamonds. The Rebbe pointed to a large stone, saying, “That is indeed a beautiful diamond.” The chasid said, “No, Rebbe, that diamond has many flaws.” He pointed to a much smaller stone. “Now, here is a perfect stone,” he said. The Rebbe said, “But the larger stone is much prettier.” The chasid said, “ Rebbe, one must be a mayvin on diamonds.” The Rebbe said, “You are a mayvin on diamonds, and I am a mayvin on Jewish neshamos(souls).
Yes, everyone wishes to be approved by others, but one’s self-esteem should not be dependent on them.
We arise in the morning and say, “ Hashem, the neshamah you instilled within me is pure.” Theneshamah was “breathed” into man at creation, and as the Zohar points out, “When one exhales, it comes from within oneself,” and inasmuch as the Torah says that Hashem breathed the neshamah into man, it is part of Hashem Himself. Every person thus has something ofHashem within oneself, and that is what gives one inestimable value.
Halacha reinforces this point. If someone is ordered to kill another person or be killed, halacharequires that he accept martyrdom. “What makes you think that your blood is redder than someone else’s blood?” (Pesachim 25b). In other words, the other person’s life is as valuable as yours. But consider this scenario. The person who is ordered to kill is an outstanding scholar or a great philanthropist, the pillar of the community, and the person he is ordered to kill is a tramp, a scoundrel who is a burden to the community. Halacha requires that he allow himself to be killed because “What makes you think that your blood is redder than someone else’s blood?” Is it not clear who is of greater value? Perhaps by our own judgment, but not inHashem’s eyes.
Every person has intrinsic value, regardless of what others think of him. Of course, this intrinsic value, the presence of Hashem within a person, places a great responsibility to actualize this enormous potential and to make oneself an appropriate receptacle for the neshamah.
The Baal Shem Tov was told of a chazzan who chanted the al chet (confession of sins) with a very lively rather than a solemn melody. The chazzan explained, “If I were given the task of cleaning out the rubbish from the palace to make it more comfortable for the king, wouldn’t I be happy to do so? When I say the al chet, I am ridding myself of my sins, making myself a more pleasant place for the neshamah.
Why, then, do we seek that others attest to our worthiness? It is because the yetzer hara tries to crush us to make us feel unworthy. The Talmud says that the yetzer hara grows stronger each day and tries to crush a person. If it can throw a person into the depressed feeling of inferiority and unworthiness, it can paralyze him so that one cannot be productive. We must resist this onslaught of the yetzer hara and feel worthy. Of course, we cannot be derelict in our obligation to become that which we can be.
Mesilas Yesharim begins by discussing the obligation of a person in this world. The greatest scholar and the most unlearned person, the most generous philanthropist and the most humble mendicant each have a similar obligation of self-fulfillment.
How we fulfill ourselves varies with our circumstances. The great sage, Rabbi Eliezer fell seriously ill, and his students came to comfort him. One student said, “Our master! You are dearer to us than a father and mother. A father and mother can provide a child only with this world, but you, our master, have provided us with the World to Come.” Rabbi Eliezer did not acknowledge this student’s comment.
Another student said, “Our master! You are dearer to us than the sun. The sun can provide a person only with this world, but you, our master, have provided us with the World to Come.” Rabbi Eliezer remained silent.
A third student said, “Our master! You are dearer to us than the rain. The rain can provide a person only with this world, but you, our master, have provided us with the World to Come.” Again, Rabbi Eliezer remained silent.
Then Rabbi Akiva spoke up. “Suffering can be precious,” he said. Rabbi Eliezer said, “Help me sit up so that I can better hear what my child, Akiva, has to say.” (Sanhedrin 101a)
The other students had said things which should have comforted Rabbi Eliezer. Why did he ignore them and listen only to Rabbi Akiva?
Resting on one’s laurels is vanity and achieves nothing. Rabbi Eliezer valued life because it provided him with the opportunity to do G-d’s will. But he was now weak and bed ridden and could do nothing. This depressed him, and the fact that he had achieved much in the past did not comfort him in the least. He could be comforted only if there was something he could do now.
What Rabbi Akiva said was that the Divine will is that a person should maximize oneself spiritually. This is what man was created for, and maximizing oneself is self-fulfillment, which is the only thing that Rabbi Eliezer felt was of value. However, in his condition, he did not see what he could do that would be spiritually fulfilling.
Rabbi Akiva said that self-fulfillment consists of doing whatever one can do at any particular moment, given one’s condition at that moment. What he told the master was essentially, “When you had the ability to teach, your self-fulfillment was teaching. Your condition now does not permit you to do that or anything else that you consider important. All you can do now is accept your suffering with trust and faith in G-d, and when you do that, you are fulfilling yourself every bit as much as when you taught us.”
There is much one can do at any one moment. Rebbe Yeruchem Levovitz points out that the purpose of creation is to recognize ein od milvado, that there is nothing in the world other than G-dliness. This is why Rambam elaborates in the fifth of Eight Chapters that every action one does should be directed at awareness of Hashem and serving Him. It is not only with the manifest mitzvos that one serves Hashem, but also when one eats and sleeps in order to have the energy to do mitzvos, and when one works and engages in commerce in order to givetzedakah and provide a Torah education for one’s children. Bchal derachecha da’ehu, knowHashem in all your ways (Proverbs 3:6), in everything you do. A person with limited scholarship can achieve this just as the most learned person.
I sometimes hear criticism about the biographies of our tzaddikim, making them out to be angels, whose level of kedusha is beyond our reach. In a letter to a student, Hagaon HaravYitschak Hutner points out that the Chafetz Chaim was not born a completed tzaddik, but had many struggles and many descents from which he had to elevate himself. Many of our gedolimhad to struggle to subdue the undesirable character traits inherent in the human being. They were not angels. To the contrary, they were great human beings, which made them greater than angels.
In a particular shidduch, the young man’s mother said, “Perhaps they would not want to marry into our family, because we have a shoemaker in our mishpacha. We trace our family back toRebbe Yohanan Hasandlar.”
When I planned to go to medical school, I consulted the Steipler gaon. In a letter published inKaraina D’igresse, the Steipler wrote that rather than being a Rav in America, it is better to make a living of melacha kalla unekia, a decent job, and that when Rashba forbad studying secular subjects before age twenty five, he exempted the study of medicine. I went to medical school with the Steipler’s blessing, and continued an ongoing relationship with him for years.
The value society puts on people is spurious, and we are not likely to change society. We should be aware of our intrinsic value and greatness. We should begin each day with the thought of what we can do today to fulfill ourselves, and we should be proud of who we are.
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