PARSHAT SHELACH LECHA

SELF-ESTEEM

“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  (Numbers 13:33)

            There is a cute Jewish story I have told on the Jewish High Holidays.  On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the rabbi is beating his chest praying, “I am a nothing, I am a nobody.”  The cantor then beats his chest saying, “I am a nothing, I am a nobody.”  Finally, at the back of the synagogue, a poorly dressed man says loudly, “I am a nothing, I am a nobody.”  The rabbi whispers to the cantor and points, “Look who is calling himself a nothing!”

            Of course, on Yom Kippur, we see ourselves as nothing.   The Untaneh Tokef prayer says that we humans are “like grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the shadow that passes, like the cloud that vanishes, like the wind that blows, like the dust that flies, and like a fleeting dream.”  But although it is part of the High Holiday liturgy, there is a problem when humans see themselves as “nothings.”

            This week’s portion tells the story of the twelve spies sent by Moses to bring back a report on the Holy Land.  Ten of them brought back an evil report, speaking of the giants in the land.  They said, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  If we see ourselves as mere grasshoppers, not worthy, soon we will come to believe that everybody will see us that way.  As a result of the spies’ report, the people cried out to Moses and longed to return to Egypt.  Low self-esteem is not healthy for the human spirit.

            If low self-esteem is not healthy, high self-esteem can also be unhealthy.   Our contemporary culture has become obsessed with the self-esteem of our children.  We live in a world where children get participation trophies.  They do not receive honors for winning at sports, because the losers may feel low self-esteem.  So, every participant must get a trophy.  Many high schools have done away with choosing a valedictorian.  If someone is honored for having the highest grade-point-average, it will undermine the self-esteem of those who were not chosen.  When someone is winner, someone else must be a loser.  And if children become losers, it undermines their self-esteem.  The trouble with this approach is that in the real adult world, some people are winners and some people are losers.  One person gets the job, and another does not.  One person wins the heart of another at romance, and another loses and is left alone.

            The truth is that self-esteem which is too low is not healthy.   It can paralyze us from ever taking action. But self-esteem which is too high can lead to arrogance and pomposity.  It is also not healthy.  Moses, our greatest prophet, was known for his humility.  There must be a balance, a way to find a middle ground between self-abasement and self-importance.  Our tradition seeks to establish that balance.

            There is a classic Hasidic story told about Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha.  He told his students, “Every person should keep two slips of paper in their pockets.  In the right pocket, if they are feeling lowly, they should pull out the paper that says, ‘For my sake was the world created.’  In the left pocket, if they are becoming too haughty, they should pull out the paper that says, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

            Life is about finding a balance between too little self-esteem and too much self-esteem.  It is a key to a healthy life.