The Lost Art of SELF ESTEEM
by Chaya Harnik 
A primer on how to recapture it.

So many of us today hold impressive degrees in our fields. 

Still more of us excel in sports and pastimes ranging from skiing to checkers to hang-gliding. For all this expertise in the world, it's extremely rare for a person to be a master in one of the most important subjects worth knowing - ourselves and our own self-worth. 

A friend of mine is a reporter for a major newspaper. More than once, she's bemoaned the fact that the higher she climbs on the professional ladder the worse the company she's forced to keep; her co-workers and even her bosses - people who've already "made it to the top" - are forever back-stabbing each another in attempts to shore up their fragile egos. 

Another friend of mine is a homemaker, one of the many women who chose to leave a successful career for full-time motherhood. Ironically, when she's back in the company of her still-professional friends, she sometimes suffers near panic attacks at her feelings of unworthiness. 

Low self-esteem is not the problem of our generation - it is the general condition. Somehow, somewhere, we lost the definition of ourselves and of the purpose of our lives. 

Self-worth is not a luxury, but a critical factor in our lives. It affects how we live on a moment by moment basis. It colors our moods and influences how effective we will be in everything we do. 

If indeed self-worth is so indispensable, how do we find it. 

We may surpass some of our friends in intelligence, we may be prettier, wittier and better dancers, and yet, these attributes are just our outermost garments and cannot define us. Nor can they be lasting sources of self-esteem. 

What, then, is a human being? The Torah, or Jewish Bible, considers this question so central to our lives that it answers this point in its very opening pages, and in no uncertain terms. 

The human being. unlike every other creature, was formed "in the image of God." It is this Godliness within us - and not our IQ nor any other attribute - that is our very essence and defines us, Judaism says. 

Though many of us have heard this concept before, few have bothered to think about it in depth. We assume it's a platitude. Yet according to Jewish thought, under-standing this concept and its ramifications in depth is the very key to self-esteem. 

In actual fact, the Torah calls the human being two different things: We are both '"zelem Elokim" and "dimus Elokim" . In rough translation, the two concepts can be called "a shadow of God," and "an image of God." 

"Shadow" and "image" refer to two different aspects of our being, according to the classic commentaries on the Torah. "Shadow" refers to the way our bodies reflect spiritual aspects of the Divine and "image" refers to the way our human faculties, like our power to understand and to make moral choices, mirror God's powers. 

A shadow is an interesting phenomenon. It is an imprecise replica - a dim outline - of another presence. Its primary "contribution," one might say, is that by its very presence it testifies to the existence of that which it shadows. 

So too, we as human beings are meant to be a testimony in this mundane world of a greater spiritual reality. Our very presence is meant to be a signpost to God's existence. 

As God is in the upper worlds, so too we are in the lower worlds. The commentators tell us that the most minute features of the human body parallel spiritual attributes of God. So, the great Jewish philosopher the MaharaI explained, the fact that the human being is the only creature to walk upright not only indicates that he is to be the master of this world; but also alludes to the fact that there is also a Master of the entire universe and beyond. From our eyes to our toes, each aspect of our physical being reflects something about the spiritual nature of God. 

Beyond these physical traits, there's a somewhat more ethereal aspect to our beings that is a direct window to the Godly nature within us - the aura which emanates from our faces. This aura, which Jewish sources call the ziv, is not a light, but an actual radiation that comes from the person and is unique to that person. 

The aura, which is perceptible to others, reflects the degree of Godliness each person has within himself or herself; by our actions, we can enhance or dim this aura. People who have had the opportunity to know or see very righteous people say they have a radiance that makes them look like angels. These people have lived lives so in harmony with God's ways that their ziv's are able to radiate in their full force. 

If our bodies are meant to be a visible testimony to God's existence, then our actions also are meant to attest to God's presence. Indeed, one of our main purposes in life is to imitate God, and, in doing so, we can actually transform ourselves into more and more Godly beings. This is what is meant by "dmus Elokiim - to be the "image of God." 

The degree each one of us actualizes this potential is completely in our own hands. Just as God is limitless, so too we, who are created in God's image, can reach higher and higher and higher in our striving to be Godlike. 
 
If this is a Godless world, and life is the accidental by-product of random chemical reactions, then I have a right to be insecure about my value. What's more, I'm eminently replaceable, because the same accident that took place to create me can happen again. 

In contrast, the Torah tells me my worth is beyond calculation; it is as limitless as that which the human being represents, as limitless as God is. 

In addition to being priceless, each one of us is also indispensable. Because God does nothing without a purpose, everything God put in this world has its purpose, including me. What's more, God doesn't make doubles. I have some unique talent, some unique way to contribute to my current world and to history - I have a mission which God is waiting for me alone to do. 

This is a tremendous statement of worth. There is nothing like a human being, and there is nothing like each human being. 

But, as the preeminent Torah commentator Rashi adds, this is also a hefty statement of obligation, because the moment I realize that no one else can do what I was put here to do, my next question must be: Am I doing it? 

Am I fulfilling the general human obligation of imitating God in my actions? And am I fulfilling the mission assigned uniquely to me? 

My mission may not be clear to me at first. But as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the 18th century Hebrew poet and kabbalist, wrote in his famous work The Path of the Just (Mesiillat Yesharim,) if I pay attention to my life, eventually my mission should become as clear and plain to me as the fact that it is daytime or nighttime outside. 

One way to tune into my mission - or at least a part of it - is to examine the talents I was given and the circumstances in which I was placed. Am I using them to their ultimate to refine and improve myself and the world? Another way is to zero in on an area of achievement that is extremely difficult for me, and yet also inescapable in my life. Often, that's an integral aspect of my mission. 

Knowing that I have a critical mission to fulfill helps me to concentrate on my own life. I can no longer worry about how I'm doing in relation to my peers, because they're irrelevant. They're working on their own missions and everyone's mission is different. 

As Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a great Chassidic rabbi of the last century. said (and I will paraphrase his famous quote): "I never asked to be our forefather Abraham. It would be wonderful to be Abraham, but I would rather be Rabbi Simcha Bunim. Why? Because God made Simcha Bunim, so obviously God wanted there to be one Abraham and one Simcha Bunim. If I would want to be Abraham, there would be two Abrahams and no Simcha Bunim, and that's not what God wanted." 

At the end of my days, Judaism says, I will have to report to God on how well I did in my life. God won't ask me why I was not as visionary as the matriarch Sarah or as brave as Queen Esther, our tradition tells us. "My child," God will say, "why weren't you you? I had a Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, but I never had a you before." 

Unfortunately the only type of self-esteem most of us have ever known comes from measuring ourselves against our friends or against the norms of society. We developed this warped understanding of our self-worth from childhood, when we learned to feel good about ourselves if we got better grades, dressed better or ran more swiftly than our contemporaries. Most of us continue to do this throughout our lives. 

Judaism, in contrast clearly lays out a path for me to follow to genuine self esteem Rather than judging myself in relation to others, I must judge myself only in relation to myself. 

How can I judge myself only in relation to myself? I judge myself according to my struggles the same way God looks at me. In the end, it's the only fair way to 1ook at myself. Judaism says that sometimes, through no fault of my own, a particular accomplishment may end up being out of my hands. Yet I am responsible to struggle to achieve it, if it's a worthy and essential goal. 

Knowing that I'm measured by God (and should measure myself) according to the struggle and not the accomplishment is a wonderful boost for self-esteem. It allows me to value every single aspect of myself- even my weaknesses - because a weakness is given to me to work with; it's part of my struggle and will be part of my achievement. So too with difficulties that come my way in the course of life. Putting on corrective glasses of Judaism, I can see that they're gifts, because only through struggle can I grow. 

Extraordinarily few people ever achieve proper self-esteem. A casual estimate of the number of us going to therapists or buying self-help books in order simply to like ourselves should convince us of this reality. 

But the fact that it's hard to achieve should not deter us. The Torah tells us that God created the world in such a way that the most important things for us to achieve are often precisely those that are the hardest for us. At the same time, God created us in such a way that we enjoy the fruits of our own labor much more than gifts we didn't earn. Though we may moan and groan throughout our struggles, the things we gain through our struggles are infinitely precious to us. 

 The single most important step we can take to enhance our self-esteem is to constantly study and review the principles of proper self-esteem. We forget very quickly the truths we pick up. Soon, we revert to judging ourselves in the old way, in relation to our environment. 

At regular intervals, we need to read literature or listen to tapes which we know have the proper perspective and can restore us to sanity. Through these aids, we can remind ourselves repeatedly, until it becomes part of our being, that we are measured according to our struggles, not according to what our neighbors are accomplishing, and not according to what anyone else may think of us. 

The last suggestion is to find a person who has healthy self-esteem and stick to them. A person like that is a balm for the soul. If we can see them on a regular basis (we don't have to tell them what we're doing), the casual information we can pick up from observing the actions and words of a person with healthy self-esteem can transform our lives. 

Chaya Harnik, who has lectured and taught Jewish topics for nearly two decades, is a principal in the Beth Rochel High School in Monsey, N.Y. 

 

Other articles on SELF ESTEEM

A Practical, Easy Route to Self-Esteem: Learn How to Be Really Selfish by Susan Ornstein

The First Step to Self Esteem

 

Sample Lectures: Self Esteem; Feminine Trait; Intimate Road; Parenting; Politic

 

 


 
 
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