I’m Not a Doormat; The Quality of Self Confidence

Sarale Benshimon, Montreal, Canada
Essays 2019 / Self Esteem

Many people today suffer from a lack of self-confidence. Statistics show that seven out of every ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way.[1] Over the course of the century, many studies have shown the importance and the need for self-confidence. There is no question on the significance self-confidence is incredibly significant to the emotional health and wellbeing of both children and adults. Self-confidence enhances one’s ability to accomplish his or her goals.

In Chassidic terminology the words used to describe this concept are Hakoras Maalas Atzmo; recognizing one’s qualities. In this essay we will, God willing, delve deeper into this very idea; Self-confidence being a vital key to fulfilling one’s purpose as a Jew. We will then understand how to properly devote ourselves to Hashem and his service through the effective application of this concept. We will understand this through the idea of Bitul, of total dedication to Hashem. Unfortunately the concept of Bitul often receives a bad rap. The term Bitul has been misused and improperly defined. This has led to a lack of confidence in those who don’t truly understand the concept. God willing, we will be able to clarify and rectify this error as well. Only once one has true confidence in one’s qualities and abilities, only then can one properly devote oneself to Hashem.

What is Self-Confidence?

Psychology Dictionary Online defines self-confidence as “an individual’s trust in his or her own abilities, capacities, and judgments, or belief that he or she can successfully face day to day challenges and demands”[2]. A website called Positive Psychology Program expounds on this as follows: “Self-confidence also brings about more happiness. Typically, when you are confident in your abilities you are happier due to your successes. Also, when you are feeling better about your capabilities, the more energized and motivated you are to take action and achieve your goals.” [3]

“Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.”[4] This quote from Golda Meir further illustrates the power of confidence. Additionally Maureen Healy is an author who writes about happy and confident children, corroborates this idea. She says, “[Confidence is] faith, belief and trust. Confidence is built upon the ability to begin seeing oneself as skilled. A child’s confidence is accelerated when parents or adults place their trust and belief in a child.”[5]

How Important is Self-Confidence?

At a Farbrangen on the thirteenth of Nissan 1966 the Rebbe shared the following anecdote[6]: When the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe and grandson of the Alter Rebbe, turned three the Alter Rebbe was the one that brought him to Cheder. Since the Tzemach Tzedek’s mother gave up her life for the Alter Rebbe and Chassidus, the Alter Rebbe took upon himself the responsibility of the young boy’s education. The teacher at the Cheder taught the child the first verse in Chumash Vayikra as is the custom.

The Tzemach Tzedek turned to his grandfather and asked, “Why is there a small letter Alef at the end of the word Vayikra?”

The Alter Rebbe went into deep meditation before replying.

“In the first chapter of the book of Divrei Hayamim in Tanach, the name of Adam, the first man, is written in the Torah with a large Alef as an indication of his greatness. Adam was created by the hands of Hashem himself[7], so to speak. Hashem testifies that he had more wisdom even than the angels[8]. Adam was someone who recognized and was cognizant of his own qualities and worth. Ultimately this led to the Chet Etz Hadaas, the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.

Contrary to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe did also recognize his own qualities. However he had something more: humility. He recognized that all his qualities were God given. His lineage, his position, and the high level of his soul; these were gifts bestowed upon him. Were another to have been granted all these things, they would have been greater than him. This is the meaning of the verse[9] “והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה” (Moshe was the most humble person to walk the face of the earth.) The Alter Rebbe asks in a discourse[10]: Wasn’t Moshe one of the greats who walked this earth? What does the verse mean when it says that Moshe was the most humble? The Alter Rebbe then supplies the answer: Moshe measured himself against every person, even those with little achievement because he knew that his accomplishments weren’t in his own merit. Rather they were because of the greatness he had been gifted. This is the definition of the most humble man to ever grace this earth. Therefore Vayikra is spelled with a small letter Alef; to indicate Moshe’s humility.

The Rebbe asks the following questions on the Alter Rebbe’s response to his grandson. Why was it necessary to bring up the comparison with Adam? It would have sufficed to simply discuss Moshe and his humility. Especially when based on this explanation, it seems to be saying something negative about Adam; that his self-confidence was his downfall, that his self-awareness is what led to the sin of all sins. Another point that needs clarification is that a big letter Alef is something good, something great. Its great size shows greatness. How can a big Alef indicate something negative about Adam? Is being cognizant of one’s own qualities is a negative thing? Is awareness and confidence in oneself something negative?

The Rebbe, in his usual style, turns everything on its head and says quite the contrary. Being that the Alter Rebbe was the primary educator for the Tzemach Tzedek, he wasn’t only answering the question intellectually, rather he was teaching him a life lesson. By prefacing his explanation with Adam, the Alter Rebe was teaching that emulating Adam is the first step to success for every Jew. One must first recognize and be cognizant of their own qualities, abilities, and essential greatness. Just like Adam one must be confident in themselves. Only from Adam can we learn this message. Only from Adam, with a big Alef, do we clearly see someone with the quality of self-confidence. This is why the Alter Rebbe brought the example of Adam. Not to disparage him, G-d forbid, but rather to emphasize his greatness and to teach us the positivity of his behavior. One must be aware of the goodness that lies within them. As the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe writes in Likutei Dibburim[11] that just as one must know one’s own faults, so too, one must also know their own qualities. This is all the first step and because Adam did not follow through to the next step it led him to the Chet Etz Hadaas.

Only once this is clear does the Alter Rebbe move on to speak of the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinun which leads us to the next step. Just like Moshe, true confidence is understanding that one’s qualities, abilities, and talents are God given. The recognition of one’s qualities must be tempered with humility. One must be aware and trust that they have so many qualities and can accomplish so much. This understanding must be followed through with the awareness that one’s qualities have been given to them from Hashem as a gift. It is not something that one works on but rather something that one accepts. This is the truest form of self-confidence. This is what we learn and are meant to emulate from Moshe.

This is what the Alter Rebbe was teaching us about what we learn from Moshe. Moshe had an additional quality of humility. He was still aware of his own qualities he however felt that another could have been more qualified. However because of his humility we cannot learn to be self-cognizant from him. That we learn from Adam. From Moshe we learn to temper the self-confidence with humility, thereby showing us the ultimate self-confidence.

This falls in line with the above mentioned discourse of the Alter Rebbe (footnote 9). It is written that those who are humble add joy to God. It seems odd that a humble person would be described as happy. One would imagine a humble person has being sad or downtrodden. However this is the very point. True humility does not bring someone to sadness. True humility, recognizing that all that one has is a gift from above, that brings to the greatest joy and happiness. This is similar to the above quote from Positive Psychology Program that confidence leads to happiness.

How Does One Utilize Self-Confidence?

One of the concepts that are prevalent in the teachings of Chassidus is the concept of Bitul. Bitul is often translated as self-nullification. The problem with this translation is that nullification has a distinctively negative sound. If one is nullified then they are nothing. If one is nothing then what they do is nothing and can accomplish nothing. Nothing isn’t worth anything and clearly Hashem wants more from His people than nothing. Furthermore there have been teachers and educators that have misused and abused this concept to denigrate and degrade their students. They have used the term Bitul to nullify their students and to make them feel worthless, like nothing. This has often caused a lack of self-worth and confidence in these very same students they were meant to educate, guide, and uplift. This is not what Bitul is.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his translation of the Tanya translates the word Bitul as self-abnegation[12]. Collins English Dictionary defines self-abnegation as “denial of one’s own interest in favor of the interests of others”[13]. This is in line with what the Alter Rebbe teaches in Tanya Chapter Six that Bitul is something or someone that has the potential (or in actuality) to focus solely on Hashem, thereby totally forgoing their own self. There’s a story told of Rabbi Isaac Meir of Gur who once asked his Chasidim, “Where is God?” The Chasidim were surprised at this seemingly elementary question and responded that God is everywhere. Their Rebbe replied, “That is not totally correct. Hashem is only where He is allowed to be.”

In Chassidic terminology the words שיהיה יש ובטל are often used. The loose translation is that one should be an existence and then have Bitul. Meaning first one must be an existence, one must be something. First one must be someone with confidence, self-awareness and feels their individual existence. Once one feels this way, which is known in Chassidic terminology as a Yesh, only then can there be Bitul. Such individuality can be given up to Hashem because there is what to give. With a sense of existence there is what to be offered up to Hashem, whereas with a sense of nothingness, there is nothing to give.

In a discourse said in 1977[14] the Rebbe reiterates this point with slightly varying language. There are two levels of Bitul. The first is a basic all-encompassing Bitul. It is the knowledge that one belongs to Hashem; that Hashem put one in the world to serve Him. This Bitul is the foundation and prerequisite to one’s continued service of Hashem. As is said in the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה, (let my soul be like dust to all). The second level is explained as the Rebbe quotes the Zohar on how the moon (which is also referring to the Sefirah of Malchus) doesn’t have anything on its own, it doesn’t have its own light, and is only a reflection of the sun. The Rebbe points out that the words ‘on its own’ seem extraneous. It would be enough to say that the moon doesn’t have anything. Why is it necessary to add the words ‘on its own’? The Rebbe answers that with Bitul the moon actually has everything. By adding the words ‘on its own’ the moon is shown to be insignificant when it stands alone. However when Bitul is present, when the moon puts itself aside and accepts the sunlight, it contains everything as it can reflect all of the sun’s light. Bitul provides the moon with so much more than it ever could have achieved on its own. Through Bitul it is like a blank canvas thus allowing anything and everything to be added to it.

The Rebbe practically applies this concept in a person’s service of Hashem. Bitul does not mean being a doormat. In the Rebbe’s words אסקופה הנדרסת, a doorway that people step on. There is no value in being stepped on and taken advantage of. That is not Bitul. That is being a doormat. On the contrary, our service of Hashem is meant to be done in an expansive manner; with joy, love, and confidence. We achieve this through Bitul, putting our own existence aside for the sake of Hashem. This choice allows us to be everything. When we are not limited by our own self and existence, we now have the ability to achieve everything.

As mentioned above self-confidence is trusting our own abilities. The foundation for that is the general Bitul and commitment to Hashem. We previously spoke of Adam and how his confidence is what led to his sin. It is because he was lacking this Bitul. This Bitul must come before everything otherwise there is no foundation upon which to build the rest of one’s service of Hashem. Chassidus then emphasizes self-confidence as being our vital next step in the service of Hashem. Just like Adam we have to be cognizant of and confident in our qualities and abilities. When one’s confidence is founded in Bitul it has a basis from which to spring forward. It is important to note that at this stage the focus is one oneself to be in the foreground and by doing so the Bitul fades into the background. This is the quality we learn from Adam.

Only then can we internalize Moshe Rabbeinu’s lesson of humility. Moshe teaches us to realize and understand that our abilities and talents are gifts from Hashem. These qualities and capabilities were gifted to us so that we can utilize those abilities and talents for Him. Which is the ultimate fulfillment of Bitul; putting ourselves aside and using everything at our disposal to serve Hashem. This practice of Bitul leads to a greater observance that we now have so much more to give back to Hashem. It all comes full circle. The first Bitul is what enables us to have proper self-confidence, which enables us to reach beyond ourselves and to do everything that Hashem wants. Hence with Bitul one has everything.

How Do I incorporate Self-Confidence in my Life?

When a person is feeling low, when one is feeling a lack of self-confidence the following affirmations can be helpful:

Firstly I have been created by Hashem and brought into this world to serve Him. I have a unique part to play in His master plan.

I exist and I am confident in myself, as a person, as an individual. I have my own specific set of abilities, capacities, and talents. I am capable of great accomplishment.

Hashem has gifted me with these talents and abilities. Hashem has given me so much.

I will take all that He has given me and devote myself to him. I’m will offer up my existence to Him. If my talent is teaching, I will teach Torah. If my talent is writing, I will write words of Torah[15]. If my strong point is my interpersonal relationships then I will reach out to others.

I am not a doormat. I am confident. I am capable.

[1] Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem

[2] https://psychologydictionary.org/self-confidence/

[3] https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/self-confidence/

[4] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/golda_meir_162893

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-development/200903/confidence-in-children

[6] לקו”ש חלק יז פ’ ויקרא

[7] ב”ר פכ”ד, ה’

[8] ב”ר פי”ז, ד’

[9] בהעלותך יב, ג

[10] ויספו הענווים בה’ (ספר המאמרים תקס”ב)

[11] לקו”ד חלק ד’ תקפא

[12] Opening the Tanya, Chap 6

[13] https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/self-abnegation

[14] ספר המאמרים מלוקט, באתי לגני תשל”ז, אות ד’ footnote י’

[15] היום יום כג טבת