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Mussar-Psych

A Special Series on Self Esteem #3

By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker

Issue No. 14
October 7, 1999

I very much appreciate the comments of those who have written, including those who have noted my silence on this list. It is hard to add to the seemingly endless stream of "noise" to which we are each subject. I am not quite so arrogant as to assume that my contribution will somehow stand out amidst the din... Still, there are some thoughts that should be shared, even if the only one taking them seriously is the speaker.

One of the comments that caught my attention regards the term "self-esteem" itself. The reader opined that the term seems rather narcissistic. Who says that self-esteem is a goal, after all!?

Surely, in response, we could say that we are intended to give regard and esteem to others, and that such regard, if not given to the self, can hardly be given to another. How would I know what it means to give regard to another if I cannot do so for myself? Yet, somehow, the question seems better than the answer. If this explanation were true, then the focus of the discussion should be giving regard to others, with regard for the self being an ingredient, perhaps even a pre-requisite, but not the goal as such.

If, as has been written by many, self-esteem is really about acknowledging the realities of the self, then it is more justifiable as a goal. The goal, then, is to know that which is true about oneself and to accept those facts not as unchangeable, nor as positive, but as present. This means that if I get angry on occasion, I must accept the fact that anger is part of my makeup. I must not attempt to avoid the reality of the self by assuming that I have acted out of character, and that I do not really have the trait called anger. It is equally important that I acknowledge, with gratitude, those times when my anger did not flare up, in spite of my latent tendency for it to do so. Taken in this light, self-esteem may be understood as self-honesty.

If this is what is meant by self-esteem, then it is, once again, not the goal. The goal is growth towards the ideal (for example, subduing the tendency to anger, enhancing one's tolerance and forbearance). Honesty is then a pre-requisite, surely a critical, indispensable pre-requisite, but not the goal.

Perhaps self-esteem refers to the notion, stressed by Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel (the Alter of Slabodka), that man is the greatest, most august creation, only a hairsbreadth below divinity. If one would regard oneself in all of one's grandeur and splendor, one would hardly be capable of acting in a manner not befitting the royal station to which one has been elevated. This would certainly justify self-esteem as a goal, with many, far-reaching implications. One who suffers from low self-esteem would be the person who thinks of him- or her-self as insignificant. Obviously, the balance between personal humility and recognition of one's greatness must be played delicately, but the two features exist side by side in the mature personality. Rabbi Abraham Twerski in his many books about self-esteem speaks of this balance at length.

It seems clear, however, that the majority of those using the term self-esteem do not mean the lofty concept taught by the Alter of Slabodka. I think that the reader is correct. The term, as commonly used, may not reflect a Torah value, after all.

Permit me a homiletic aside, as heard from Rav Tzvi Kushelefsky. He explained that Hevel could be killed (see the fourth chapter of the Torah) because of his exceeding self-negation. Even his name, which means vanity and meaninglessness, conveys that the world could not be built through him. The personality of Hevel re-appears in the person of Moshe whose humility is second to none. Yet, he corrects the excess of nothingness found in Hevel by asserting himself to the limit in his confrontation with the brilliant, powerful, wealthy challenger, Korach. While the original Hevel was absorbed into the ground (see ibid.) this time Moshe was able to cause Korach to be swallowed into the ground. It is noteworthy that the numerical difference between Moshe (345) and Korach (308) is Hevel (37).

With best wishes,

Ephraim David Becker

Comments are welcome!


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