Self-esteem is a term that reflects a person‘s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, “I am competent,” “I am worthy”) and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame. Synonyms of self-esteem include: self-worth, self-regard, self-respect, and self-integrity. It is a self-concept, a self-evaluation of what we think about ourselves. It is often not based on actual facts, but how each person views himself or herself. Studies have shown that a person with a high level of self-esteem, who may not be as gifted as he thinks he or she is, generally does better and excels more than the person who is objectively more gifted and talented but has low self-esteem. Therefore, in an age where more people (particularly children and adolescents) think less and less of themselves, achieving proper self-esteem is important for each person. Feeling good about oneself helps each person become happier and achieve success (even by any self-standard) in life. But how is self-esteem achieved? How can a person who has low self-esteem be convinced of his or her own greatness?
As a people, Jews have always had overall high self-esteem. In order to survive intact as a distinct group, a minority culture, in diverse foreign lands, Jews always believed that they were as good (or better) than others. Thus, for example, when other immigrant groups came to the United States en masse, they usually did not adjust and rise socio-economically as quickly as did the millions of Jewish immigrants in the twentieth century who immigrated to the USA. This largely has to do with self-esteem and a general sense of well-being in life. Even today, in all surveys, Jews in the State of Israel are some of the happiest and contented people on earth, with high self-esteem, even though the country has been threatened with utter destruction since its birth more than 60 years ago. How and why is this achieved? How can individual Jews who feel incompetent and unworthy learn to feel the opposite? What messages within Judaism can help each person feel good about himself or herself?
THE IMPORTANCE OF EACH AND EVERY PERSON IN THE WORLD
Traditional Jews realize that there is a “piece” of G-d, as it were, inside every human being. That is what makes man special as a species, and it makes each member of the human race a special unique and important individual as well. The G-dliness inside every person gives him or her enormous value as, according to the Talmud, each person has incalculable worth, regardless of his or her identity or level of intelligence and accomplishment, since a single individual has the value of an entire world. This general awareness should help every person think better of himself or herself. King David wrote that each individual is so special that he or she is just a little lower than the angels. But just one verse before this, he wrote that man is “nothing.” This seems to be a contradiction. The Midrash explains that when people have either a low or proper level of self-esteem, they should know that they have achieved a status so high that only angels are higher. But if a person has excessive self-esteem and as a result thinks too highly of himself, G-d (and King David) tells this person not to “think you are so great” since G-d created the mosquito before you, so you are not really all that special.
That each person has a bit of G-d inside him or her is itself is a level of greatness, and should give each person a feeling of self-worth. But the Mishna states that an even greater feeling of well-being is achieved in that man can be aware of how special he or she really is. It is one thing to be special. It is quite another to realize and be conscious of that unique situation and use that specialness to maximize one’s potential.
Maimonides adds to this notion by saying that man should realize how lucky he is to be part of a species that is so unique. He is the only creature in the world who can truly distinguish between right and wrong, as animals do not have this gift. And because animals are basically pre-programmed at birth, they have very few choices about what to do with their lives. But man has infinite choices before him, and can use his or her life to accomplish whatever he or she desires, without anyone forcing him or her to choose any particular path. That free choice by man in every sphere is a great gift that people should appreciate and take full advantage of. Thus, Judaism teaches that every person is so special and important that he or she is considered at the center of the world. In fact, it is proper to say to oneself and actually believe that the entire world was created for “me and my needs.” Sadly there are many Jews, even observant Jews, who do not appreciate this concept. Thus, they value a Torah scroll much more than they value each person who is viewed as much more valuable than a Torah, and they, therefore, treat the Torah with more respect than they treat each person. When the Torah passes them, they will stand up, but when a person passes, they often do not stand up. And when the Torah is about to fall, they rush quickly to prevent it from falling. But when an elderly person is about to fall, they do not run quite as fast to prevent that person from falling. This is utterly wrong from a Jewish perspective, as each person is much more valuable than a Torah scroll.
Jews should feel especially lucky and blessed, and should feel particularly good about themselves. Because of the rich heritage passed down to every Jew, all Jews, says the Mishna, should feel like the son or daughter of a king, part of royalty. For all these reasons, Jews should realize that they are great – in other words, they should feel extremely good about life and about themselves.
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and four grandchildren.
This essay is reprinted from the book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” published by Urim, or the upcoming books, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to Man” or “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d” to be published in the future. This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).