Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Tammuz 5763 - July 17, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Self Esteem

by HaRav Yaakov Weinberg zt"l

Who am I? What should I feel about myself? For many this presents a big problem. They are not at peace with the way they see themselves.

There are two approaches to this topic.

One is the modern problem of self esteem, which is very definitely a new problem and one that is not addressed as such anywhere in previous generations. We will deal with this later.

The other is the question of how the Torah looks at the need of recognizing oneself and how one should see him or her self. There are two models.

The Rambam has a particular approach that is reflected in the following statement that he makes: To understand and to be able to derive from the Talmudic literature the final result and how then to apply it, requires a very broad mind and a deep understanding. There are very few people who can do it today. Therefore I'll do it for you.

Is he saying that he has a very broad mind? Yes, there's no question about it. He says it requires this and very few people have it, so he'll do it for us.

Does someone think that he is lacking in modesty -- or is he just giving us a dispassionate, noninvolved assessment of the facts of his abilities?

It's clear from the context that there's no self- consciousness. There is no feeling that he is boasting. He is merely stating a fact. What he is saying is just a clear, dispassionate statement of fact.

The other fundamental author in Judaism, upon whom is based all of our study of Torah and Talmud is R' Shlomo Yitzchaki known as Rashi. He saw himself differently. Let me quote for you from his responsa, Teshuvos Rashi.

They asked him what he would decide in a certain question and Rashi answered as follows: I am amazed that, when there are such other great scholars, you would direct your question to me! The laws of derech eretz, of courtesy, compel me to answer you but I beg of you, please do not rely on what I am telling you. Before you do anything, ask somebody who is really worthy of giving decisions in Jewish law.

He seems to be totally unaware that all these great men he is talking about are his disciples, or disciples of his disciples. Literally not one of them did not derive his knowledge, and his ability to decide, directly from the master -- Rashi. It seems that Rashi didn't recognize and acknowledge that he was teaching them. They acknowledged that they were learning from him, but he thought of himself as just passing on others' knowledge.

I heard one gentleman say, "What did Rashi do? He was only a glorified secretary. All he did was transmit the words of other people."

That man was fooled into his assessment by the fact that Rashi says in many places, "Lo shomati," I did not hear [what was said about this topic], and therefore I cannot tell you the meaning or answer. This gives the impression that Rashi only transcribed whatever he heard. But this is a severe misunderstanding. Rashi's commentaries are the basis for almost everything that followed him.

Rashi himself seems to have been completely unaware of any special quality that he possessed. In his teshuvoh, he is unaware that he is the most luminous figure in his time and in his place, that he has no rival. There was no one else who even felt himself to be in the same category -- of course not of the same stature as Rashi, but not even in the same category.

All of Torah learning, in breadth and in depth, was built on this one man's teaching. He was the master of all of French and Spanish Jewry and, with the passage of time, of world Jewry.

He and the Rambam were the individual masters of Jewry. They were both in a separate category, and were seen as in a separate category. Nobody else was within the area they occupied. And Rashi is completely unaware that this is the case.

The Rambam is totally and completely aware that he is playing this role, and he takes the full responsibility of working with that role. The Rambam dispassionately and without any self-consciousness presents the reality of who he is. He states simply that he is able to give you the Torah.

Rashi is unaware of the role that he fills.

With this, I want to cite an example of the Rambam's anovoh, this man who knew the role that he played, who accepted the responsibility of being the one man who directed his whole area, his whole country and all those around it, who gave them their psak halochoh, who gave them their decisions and told them how to organize their communities -- everything.

If you want to see how he saw himself, there is a famous letter that he wrote to his talmid who wanted to come visit him and discuss issues with him. He says: I would love to see you, and if you come I will see you, but if you want to discuss anything with me, it is not possible. He then proceeds to outline his daily schedule. [Skipping the morning . . .] He says that when he comes back from the palace of the Egyptian king, it's already well into the afternoon, "va'ani nofeil min hachamor" I am so exhausted that I am falling off of the donkey I am riding. He goes into the courtyard at his home, and it's packed full of people who are there to see him, for advice, for help. He gets off the donkey and he staggers in to take a bit of a meal -- his first food that day -- and lie down on his bed in exhaustion, from which he will be seeing people. And he says, "I beg them to forgive me for keeping them waiting."

If you want an example of modesty, remember that this is the man who knows who he is and what they're coming for, but he will not go in to take a short bite to eat without first begging their forgiveness. Clearly he's not lacking in modesty.


The main point I want to make here, however, is this: Both role models -- the Rambam and Rashi -- don't have a problem with self esteem. Rashi has no more problem with self esteem than the Rambam does.

Even though he has no an inkling of the impact he was having on his entire generation and all the generations to come, he has no problem with self esteem. He does not need it. He is totally comfortable with himself. He's comfortable with who he is, and he doesn't need any justification for being who he is and doing what he has to do.

Be Happy with Your Lot

The source in Chazal of this is the mishna that is at the heart of a Jew's self esteem. It is one that you could put your thoughts on, delve into, and it will be a complete program for dealing with questions of self esteem. The mishna (Ovos 4:1)says: Eizeh- hu oshir? Who is a man of wealth? Hasomei'ach bechelko.

The mishna is saying as follows: Who is a happy man or who is a wealthy man? Sometimes the answer is translated: He who is satisfied with his lot and does not want more. That is totally untrue, and not what the mishna is saying at all. One who is somei'ach bechelko is not necessarily satisfied with his portion. It is not that he will not seek more or better, but that he will not suffer from the lack.

It is not what we have that gives us satisfaction or happiness or pleasure. It is what we find acceptable to live with.

Just consider that if a citizen of Nigeria had that which a poverty-stricken, inner city resident in the US has, he would be like a multimillionaire. He would be ecstatic beyond expression -- even if he only had that which leaves the fellow in the inner city of America with a sense of hopelessness. This fellow, hopeless and oppressed and devastated with poverty as he is, nonetheless has a radio and maybe a car. He has an indoor toilet; he has indoor running water. He has many things which a king did not have a short time ago, and which would be eye-popping to a someone in many of the countries whose citizens do not possess them.

In other words, it is not what we have; it is what we feel that we ought to have. If someone else has a $50,000 car and I only have a $30,000 car, I may find life unbearable. The mishna says, Be a somei'ach bechelko. You can and should try for more, of course, but live with what you have, be grateful for it, recognize the blessings that you have in it, and you'll be a somei'ach bechelko.

You have every reason for incredible happiness. Stop and think for a moment about what you owe the Melech Malchei Hamelochim! The ability to see, the ability to walk, the ability to use your hands, the ability to hear. The creation of magnificent vistas with which to lift your heart and your mind and your spirit. The flowers, the trees, the foods! The books, the ability to read, being literate. Never mind the Torah with which he blessed us.


Sometimes a mother comes to me and says: How can I bring a child into this horrible world?

I've heard it many times by now.

Horrible? Horrible for whom? In what way horrible? The growth, the experiences, the blessings available to any child, whether in Africa, in Asia, or in the Western world! There is a lack of appreciation in this feeling that I am oppressed, that I am lacking. There is no one whose blessings do not outweigh his or her difficulties by a very large factor.

Spiritual Weighing

Eizeh-hu oshir? Hasomei'ach bechelko applies even more to spiritual matters. What am I? What worth do I have? What value do I have? What do I contribute? What is the point of my living? What do I know? How much can I accomplish?

What creates problems of self esteem is a rejection of reality, and a denial of unbelievable blessings. Everyone is meaningful to so many people, makes a difference to so many people. I contribute so much by giving directions, giving support to a friend in need. I learn. I do mitzvos.

What is the problem of self esteem? Does it mean that you have to be as good as your friend? Why?

Why aren't you meaningful for what you are or what you're experiencing or what you're doing? It is the same problem as the fellow with the cheap car, who says he is unable to live his "bitter" life because his friend has a better car. It's essentially no different.

It can go so much deeper in spiritual things. In material things you can say, "Look. I've got thirty. He's got fifty." In spiritual terms you can say I've got two; he's got a hundred and forty. You can minimize your assessment of what you have and exaggerate your assessment of what he possesses. You can say that you are totally impoverished and he is a multibillionare. Material things are more easily measured. Spiritual achievements are much harder to assess.

The balance is to appreciate yourself properly because of what you have, but not to inflate your ego. That leads a person off the right path. Approach it correctly, and it doesn't do anything to your ego at all.

You don't have to say that in order for me to be of value I have to know the entire Talmud -- or else I am nothing! Do you know a page? That's wonderful. Be grateful for it. That will take away any feeling of inferiority.

Inferiority is because, "I ought to have so much more, and I don't!" If you don't have that feeling, and you feel grateful for what you do have, then you don't have ego problems and you don't have self esteem problems.

You do not measure your value and your worth in terms of the other fellow. You measure your value and your worth in terms of how you live. And it doesn't matter how you live: you have value and worth.

The only one who doesn't have value is someone doing mainly evil. If you are someone like that and you are worried about your self worth, at least you recognize that you are doing evil. Then stop doing the evil. "I can't stop!" Try. That effort itself is a tremendous thing to feel good about, to feel a sense of personal worth.

Confession vs. Teshuvoh

The exact same point, but expressed in another way, is in considering the difference between Catholic Confession and our notion of Teshuvoh.

Confession leads to feelings of guilt and self destruction. Teshuvoh does not lead to guilt and self destruction. It leads to growth and accomplishment.

There is no more destructive force in the world than guilt. The Jew who is doing teshuvoh has no guilt, since he is still somei'ach bechelko.. The baal teshuvoh does not measure himself up and conclude that he (or she) is a failure, he is no good, he deserves the worst.

If someone thinks like that, the follow-up is: "Well, I may as well do whatever I want."

If you say to him, You're destroying yourself. "Yeah," he says. "I know. I'm telling you that. That's exactly what I'm claiming. I'm destroying myself. Isn't it awful?"

You can't help him or her. He just throws back at you what you say to him.

For example: "You know this is self destructive, find a more positive approach."

"I'm telling you, that's what I am. I'm terrible. I'm awful. I have no worth. I have no value. I am self destructive. I'm telling you that. Are you telling me? No, I'm telling you!"

So you say, "But you can help yourself!"

He says, "How can I help myself? Even you agree that I am totally worthless, that I am no good. What's the point?"

He just digs himself deeper and deeper into the morass.

Do you think I am exaggerating? This is simply the most convenient excuse for doing whatever I want and destroying myself that a human being can present. I'm worthless! So what's the point of doing anything?

It is the easiest way to justify viciousness, deviousness and self destructiveness, that a human being has devised.

Doing teshuvoh, I am dealing with the positive aspects of my existence. I'm looking for ways to make it better. I have enormous worth. I have so much to be grateful for. I have been blessed by the Ribono shel Olom with the unimaginable blessing of being exposed to the wisdom of His Torah. Can you thank Him enough for that? Is there something that can compare to just this one thing -- to being exposed to the wisdom of Torah?

"I'm no good."

"Why are you no good?"

"I should've gotten X."

You should have? Try for it and you'll get more!

What are you guilty about? Why do you despair?

Because, you did wrong things? Correct them!

If I'm a failure, I can't correct things any more. I'm no good!

But if you're not talking about whether I am good or not but whether I'm accomplishing or not, then you can always try for more.

If your focus is on your worth, your accomplishment, your value, you may despair. It doesn't matter who you are. Even if you are a multibillionaire, if your focus is on your success or failure, you're a failure because you always want more!

Take Nelson Rockefeller. His life could be seen as a failure. He wanted to become president of the United States, and he failed. But he was governor of New York? He wanted to be president and he never made it!

On the other hand, look at his contributions. He was elected governor and he was a good governor. He didn't become president, but he ran and expressed his thoughts. People were lifted by it. Life was worth it for what he did even if he did not achieve his highest goal. In these terms, he had a good and meaningful life.

If someone focuses on his desires, he can have a miserable life of total failure. He may never get what he wants.

Kennedy got elected president, but he was miserable because he wanted the history books to speak about the extraordinary, unbelievable, president that he was. And he didn't see that happening.

The problem of self esteem -- when it is a problem -- is a destructive, self-imposed problem that doesn't really exist. You have to accept what you are and discover how meaningful you are. Don't measure your worth. Don't compare it. Don't judge it. Use it.

Approach it with the point of view of somei'ach bechelko. If you approach it with this point of view, life becomes a series of enjoyable, usable, accomplishments. No matter who you are, no matter what you are. Focus on what you are doing, not on yourself as a success or failure.

Don't make your life one of self judgment. Make your life a life of self assessment. By the difference between self judgment and self assessment I mean whether you focus on your own being, or you focus on what is happening, what you are doing. It's not a question of selfishness or unselfishness. It's a question of focus.


Think about this:

Two fellows, nebach G-d forbid, lost a leg in an accident. They're lying in the hospital room. A says to B: "I lost my right leg. But thank G-d, I am going to get a prosthetic. I may not be able to run a marathon, but I will be able to do many, many things. I will be able to make a living. I can raise a family. And I will do these things. It's gonna be a little harder then it would have been otherwise, but I have so much to be grateful for."

The other one says, "I'm finished. I'm crippled. I lost my right leg. What do you expect from me? There's no way I can do things like normal people. I have to accept a second-rate life. I've got to realize that I'm worthless. I have nothing to offer. There's no way I can have a family."

Another scene. There are two people in a hospital room. Both are terminal. One says, "Thank G-d I have these few hours left. I can see my children. I can see my grandchildren. I can have nachas from them. They're coming. Their concern is a source of strength and happiness to me. It enables me to use these few hours in a very constructive way. I can relate to them. I can give them some advice. At the very least, I can leave them with a blessing, with a feeling of closeness, with a feeling of how much they've meant to me, how much they've done for me."

The other one says, "Oh, I'm dead. It's all over and I may as well accept that."

What is each one focusing on? Is he focusing on himself and his failure and worth, or is he focusing on the situation, on what's being accomplished?

A better example: In an old age home, two women are sitting in the same room. Mrs. A says to Mrs. B, "Oh," she says, "I can't begin to tell you what a fortunate, blessed woman I am. I have a son and a daughter. There doesn't pass a week that my son doesn't call me to ask me how I am, can he send me something? I have a daughter and there isn't a week that she doesn't come. And every time she comes, she has something for me, an orange or a chocolate or a magazine. I can't tell you how blessed I am, with such devoted, caring children."

Mrs. B says, "Well, you're a very lucky woman, but I'm devastated. I've got a son, but the most he can do is to give me a once-a-week call. That's all he can spare for me, one call a week. My daughter manages to come once a week. When she comes to visit me, what do you think she brings? Nothing much, an orange, a chocolate, a magazine. That's all. I am such an unfortunate, cursed woman."

Is that an exaggeration, or does it happen every day? The exact same circumstances: this one considers herself blessed; and this one is devastated.

What He Does Not Have

How does the person who is somei'ach bechelko feel about what he doesn't have? What is his approach?

He never has a negative feeling about what he doesn't have. He has a positive feeling about what it would be nice to have, and he'll try to get it. But the lack of it will never bother him!

Consider a couple without a child. It's something they want desperately, but they don't suffer from the fact that they don't have the child. They are somei'ach bechelko.

The do not consider that they are unworthy to have a child. Thinking like that is what destroys people, to thing that they weren't zoche, because they are not worthy. The Ribono shel Olom apparently does not think that they deserve a child. When someone looks at it destructively he says, "I'm nothing! I am nothing if I'm deprived of a child because Hashem doesn't think I deserve it. He is telling me that I am useless."

The approach that is focused on accomplishments rather than judgments says: I hope the Ribono shel Olom will be mezake me, but meanwhile, I can help those who do have children. I can do chassodim. If I would be zoche to have a child myself, it would be wonderful. I would be so grateful. But boruch Hashem, at least I have a husband who is devoted and cares. I have my sister's children to whom I can give so much.

To the judgmental one, the sister's children eat her up alive. She feels uncomfortable when she sees other women with their children. It makes her feel she is nothing.

The other one has pleasure from seeing other women with children. Boruch Hashem if I don't have, at least look at all these wonderful children and their parents and what they do. Maybe I can help them.

If it is an indication of my unworthiness, I am devastated.

If the person is somei'ach bechelko, then he dosn't see it as an indication of unworthiness. Some people have different functions. Obviously I'm not zoche to be a mother but I am zoche to give and contribute in so many other areas. That's a somei'ach bechelko. She'd love it, she's mispalel for it, she's looking for it, she hopes for it -- but she isn't broken because she doesn't have it.


Question: Rochel Imeinu said, "Hovoh li bonim, im ayin meisoh onochi," Give me children or else I'm dead. Didn't she feel broken? Why isn't she happy? She could help Leah's kids?

What is Rochel Imeinu saying? Is she not a somei'ach bechelka? Of course she is. But she is saying, "In order for me to be able to accomplish that which the Ribono shel Olom demands from me, I need sons. Otherwise I am unable to do it. My life will not have the ability to accomplish what I was created for!"

She displays the balance and approach of a somei'ach bechelka where she strives for what she does not have, but is not devastated by not having it.

Question: Any woman would say that!

Another woman can't really say that, because she's not created to make shevotim. Rochel is supposed to create shevotim. She has to be an Eim, one of the mothers of the Jewish people. Imohos are not just the physical mothers. Imohos means that they contribute to the character and development of all of the shevotim. Rochel is saying that she can't contribute to any of them unless she has her own child. If she doesn't have her own child, then she can't be an Eim even for those who are not hers.

Then she sees that she can become a mother by proxy, and that will give her the shem of an Eim. It won't give her the satisfaction of being a mother herself. It is clear from this approach of hers that she was not looking for self esteem or self justification, but to fulfill her function. She will be able to function as an Eim through the children of Bilha.

Question: What about Yaakov? When he lost Yosef he mourned for twenty years. He lost his spiritual level.

Aveilus is a halacha. Aveilus cannot be a contradiction to what we've been saying. It is possible to be an oveil and a somei'ach bechelko at the same time.

Similarly, and far more importantly, it must be possible to be a somei'ach bechelko and be a baal teshuvoh, at the same time. A baal teshuvoh is full of regret and sorrow at the things that he lost, but at the same time he has to be molei simchah. There's no question that the classical understanding of a baal teshuvoh is that he's molei simchah.

Just imagine the simcha that such a man should feel. Now G-d helped me to see where I ought to be going and what I ought to abandon. Is it ever possible to express my appreciation and joy for this critical insight that I have achieved? Is there any way that even in a full lifetime I will be able to express my gratitude for this inconceivable brochoh? Imagine my joy at ridding myself of all the past, and opening up a fresh new existence for myself.

I have joy simultaneously with the regret at the past. They go together. That is why I don't fall into despair. There is no guilt feeling. On the contrary, it opens up to me a sense of expansion and worthwhileness that I now enjoy that has a different dimension, one that somebody who has not undergone this process does not have. It's a fantastic thing that the baal teshuvoh has and does. The sense of joy that he should have and express is beyond imagination, which coexists with his regret.

Someone is starving, dying of thirst, broken bones, in pain. Then somebody came and lifted him out. He still has pain. He still has a long recovery ahead of him. But isn't he grateful? Isn't he glad that he was rescued?

Even better. You go to the doctor. The doctor says I have to operate. He will cut me open. It will hurt me. And I say, "Thank you doctor. I am so grateful to you for what you will do."

Grateful because he will cut you open? You will have pain. Yes I have a lot of pain, thank G-d, but boruch Hashem I'm getting well. The tumor, Rachmono litzlan, was taken out. I'm paying a price in pain, but I am happy to pay that price. I can even say that is a good price to pay!

Do you wish you never had it? Would you have liked it better not to have that tumor or those injuries? Certainly.

But are you grateful for the results? Definitely.

That's somei'ach bechelko. Of course you wish you never fell and broke your bones. But once, G-d forbid, you did, you've got a lot to be joyful about.

That's the pshat, when someone is an oveil, Rachmono litzlan. That does not mean that he's not still a somei'ach bechelko.

HaRav Yaakov Weinberg zt"l was rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore, MD. His fourth yahrtzeit was on 17 Tammuz.

This is an edited transcript of a tape of a lecture provided by the Aish Hatorah Audio Center. The picture is also courtesy of the Aish Hatorah Audio Center.

Rabbi Yaakov S. Weinberg Institute and Archives

The family and talmidim of HaRav Weinberg zt"l have organized to bring his words and thoughts to the Torah public. They would like to hear from anyone who has tapes or written material of HaRav Weinberg zt"l, and also from anyone who is willing to help with transcribing the tapes and/or preparing them for publication.

A peirush on the Hakdomoh to the Rambam is near publication.

To volunteer or for more information, please contact the Institute at: Tel: 001-410-484-6604 ext 3; Fax: 001-410-484- 4299; email:


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