Self-Worth and Selflessness
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
A captivating tale of Gold, Dirt, and a Shipwreck
I am Dirt. I am the lowest of the low. I am stepped on, I am crushed, and I am swept out of everyone’s homes. On my own, I am utterly and completely useless. I imagine, though, that if I were to be mixed with water, you could turn me into clay, and then I would be worth something. From clay you can form me into a cup, into a vase, into practically anything! And then if you’d carefully etch intricate designs on me and coat me in a thick layer of silver, I’d look so sophisticated and so… Worthy. I’m sure that then, others would appreciate me and like me. And if I’d be shipped off to a store after that, I’d be able to be purchased – a real marker of my worthiness!
I’m finally in a store – a real big business. There are so many other cups and vases and plates and all other kinds of dishes… This is so sensational – I am finally a part of something! Ooh here go the first impressions – the prettiest and most delicate-looking cup is whispering to me. Oh… She’s telling me to move over. Well that’s rather rude. But I will comply, because, after all, I am new here and I do need her approval. It’s not worth risking my whole built up image by creating a boundary. And now this small, oily cup is speaking to me. He’s complaining to me quite annoyingly that I’m blocking him. Ha! And who does he think he is to tell me what to do? No way can I make room for him; I am, honestly, much more worthy than he is and it would be a painful downgrade for me to give in to someone like him.
Worthiness. While it’s a word spoken all too often in the world of psychology, we tend to overlook its meaning in regards to Torah and, more specifically, Chassidus. The refrain of Neshama remains bound to Tanya and refuses to permeate our lives, while many of us sit in the library or online for hours, reading up on the newest updates on the leading psychologists and psychoanalysts. It is know that everything in Klipa, the forces of impurity, have their counterpart in Kedusha, the G-dly forces of Purity(1); the purpose of this essay is to bring light onto the Worthiness, Wholeheartedness, and Healthy Living of Torah.
Although the forms of healing in the modern world vary from the Truth of Torah’s healing, the symptoms of these matters in our day to day lives are generally the same. So while we are often told of self-love and boundaries at all costs while Torah tells us of our True Worthiness, the manifestation of unworthiness in our lives and its effects are ordinarily equivalent.
Unworthiness comes from the untruth that we are defined by the things we have, the people we associate with, and the circumstances of our lives. The things we have range from having good looks, nice clothes, and a big house to having a healthy family, many talents, and high standards. It can also include having thoughts, emotions, accomplishments, power, and status. The people we associate with can be the amount of people we’ve helped, the people we’ve been helped by, the validation and compliments we receive from others, or very simply the friends we have or the amount of emails and texts we receive. The circumstances of our lives is often the home we grew up in, the lifestyle we live or have lived, and the experiences we’ve had. On their own, these things are often good and many are important values; however, these things should never define us.
When we begin to define ourselves by any or, at times, many of these things, our lives look similar to the life of Dirt – because he is innately worthless, he must constantly build himself up, creating and recreating his worthiness. We feel compelled to overlook boundaries in exchange for validation, and when we are called on to help others who are less fortunate, we may either help so that our self-image looks good, or view it as an attack on our self-worth. We become a sum total of the opinions we follow, for we feel too afraid to take on an opinion of our own. We conform, fearful of being put down for standing strong. We become like a poor man who receives one hundred dollars – not a single cent is extra because each is needed to survive. We hustle for our Worthiness for we do not feel innately Worthy; we cannot define ourselves because we do not know who we really are.
The problem with being defined by people and things is that these are all unstable. If someone’s whole self is dependent on his house, and it is one day burnt down, is he no longer a person? If someone defines himself by the people he associates with and one day discovers that they are dishonest and corrupt, who is he? If nothing in a person’s physical life will last him, then what can he depend on as his true Self; what can he define himself by? On the other hand, we cannot simply walk the walk of life without knowing who we are, because by default human nature is to find meaning and purpose in life.(2) Just as it is impossible to follow the directions of a map without knowing where we are to begin with, it is impossible to discover our purpose if we don’t know who we are.
I am gold. My worth will not changed based on what you make of me because I have innate worthiness just by Being. From underneath the ground hidden in mines to being shaped into an elegant piece of jewelry, my value does change, but very little. If you’d like to make me into something to be used, I’d be happy to help you out, but I honestly don’t need it – I have value whether you make me into something or not.
I am now in the store. There are so many other kinds of trinkets and jewelry here, too! It’s quite fascinating how each one has something specific that makes it unique, and how each is so special in its own way. There are a few others speaking to me – I will listen, giving each of them a chance. One fancy bracelet is asking me to move over a bit… Of course, I don’t mind! I don’t need to be seen and have others confirm that I am beautiful in order to feel beautiful. And now a necklace is speaking up loudly and everyone seems to shrink back in fear as he approaches. He is telling me that I don’t belong here and that I look old and dull compared to all the others here. I don’t feel hurt because I know that this is not true; I know that I am worthy regardless of the way I look and comparing me to others isn’t relevant. I feel compassion for this necklace because when someone doesn’t recognize his own self-worth he will often compensate by putting others down down. I respond kindly and confidently, and the necklace returns to his place thoughtfully. Now a customer walks into the store. He sees me first and carefully examines me. He brings me up to the counter and asks if I’m available for sale. I am calm because I don’t need to be bought although I’d be glad to use the gifts I’ve been blessed with by allowing someone else to have pleasure from me, I am worthy and my gifts have purpose whether or not he buys me. Now the customer is moving toward another piece of jewelry. Go ahead – and use it in good
If we are not Dirt, then we must be Gold. If we are not defined by many things, we must be defined by One Thing. And this one thing is called Neshama; the powerful, transcendental, and G-dly Soul. In the second chapter of the Tanya, the author, the Alter Rebbe, quotes Job(3), describing the Neshama as “truly ‘a part of G-d above.’” Commentaries on the Tanya expound: “The Alter Rebbe adds the word ‘truly’ to stress the literal meaning of these words… The Alter Rebbe adds the word ‘truly,’ thus emphasizing that the Jewish soul is quite literally a part of G-d above.”
So, in essence, we are a literal part of G-d. Our Neshama is what makes us Gold; it’s what gives us the Worthiness that we have. Knowing this, it is possible to be no longer reliant on things and people in our lives, for we have innate Self-Worth – we have a Neshama.
Before we expound on what a Neshama is and how we can begin defining ourselves by it, let us discover why we ever defined ourselves by other things in the first place. If it is so obvious that we are a Soul, why don’t we initially recognize this as our inherent Worthiness? The answer lies within the order of the chapters of the Tanya: the first chapter speaks of our animalistic soul, the Nefesh Habihamis, while the second speaks of our G-dly soul, our Nefesh Elokis. The reasoning behind this order is that we are human beings with physical bodies, and therefore with the limitations and needs of physical bodies. Because of this, we tend to naturally feel the needs of our animalistic soul before our G-dly soul. When one soul is constantly being tended to and the other overlooked, we begin defining ourselves by the one that is being taken care of because, after all, it takes priority in our lives. However, we must remember that the material world is merely a contraction of the spiritual world,(4) and the fact that we feel one soul more than the other does not mean that this is the soul we must define ourselves by. On the contrary, it is our G-dly soul, our soul that is the spiritual drive behind our relationship with G-d and each good deed we do, that represents who we are. Because G-dliness is Truth and only Truth is everlasting, consequently, the part within us that is G-dly and everlasting is the part that we must define ourselves by. Both lie within us, both are motivators behind our actions, and yet only one defines us.(5)
Someone who defines himself by his Neshama, his G-dly soul, is compared to a rich man. When a rich man receives one hundred dollars, it is appreciated, but he is not dependent on the money. Correspondingly, when this person receives a compliment or is honored it is appreciated, but he is not dependent on it for he know his innate self-worth and defines himself by it.
Even when we don’t feel the effects of our Neshama practically, it still is our inherent Worthiness and therefore is the motivation behind our inclination to do good. In a Chassidic Discourse which speaks about standing up to adversity(6), the Previous Rebbe brings down a curious concept: In the Rambam(7), there is a law, that a gett, the bill of divorce, can only be given with the husband’s consent. If, however, a man refuses to give his wife a gett, he can be forced to consent, and the gett can be considered valid. The Rambam’s reasoning behind this law is that because the husband’s true Self, his Neshama, does want to do what is required of him by the Torah and give his wife a gett, it is considered as if he has given it himself.
Another instance where we see the effects of our Worthiness regardless of whether we feel it practically or not is the case of Avner, a man who had previously been religious but had left the paths of Torah. What had caused this rejection was a fact he had heard from his teacher, the Ramban, who had said that everything under the sun can be found in a single Torah portion – the Parsha of Ha’azinu. His disbelief in this concept had caused him to leave the Torah life he had been living. When he was later asked by the Ramban why he had left, Avner explained to him his reason. “If truly everything can be found in Parshas Ha’azinu,” challenged Avner, “where can my name be found?” The Ramban turned to the wall, asking G-d to show him where, indeed, the name of Avner could be found. It suddenly occurred to him that the third letter of each word in Verse 26 of the Parsha spelled out his name – אָ ַמ ְר ִּתי, אַפְא ֵיהֶם; אַ ׁ ְשב ִּי ָתה ֵמאֱנ וֹ ׁש, זִכְָר ם – amarti afa ihem ashb isha me’en osh zichr am – R’ Avner.(8) After hearing this, Avner returned to the way of Torah. The most fascinating detail is that Avner, although he had strayed from Torah, was recorded in the Parsha as Reb Avner – a title connoting honor and his status as a fully observant Jew. This touches upon the significance of the Essence: regardless of whether it is being expressed or not, it is alive and vibrant inside.(9)
It follows that within ourselves, there is our Worthiness, and even when we become absorbed and overwhelmed by the people and things that we let ourselves be defined by, there is a foundation rooted in our purest essence that cannot be overshadowed because it is Truth. All we must do, as holders of this Truth, is tap into it. And tapping into this requires beginning to define ourselves and live by the Truth of our Neshama.
Defining ourselves by our Neshama is a pretty simple task, but one that can take years of practice to implement. On a very basic level, defining ourselves by our Neshama requires finding the areas in our lives where we don’t necessarily characterize ourselves by our G dly Source. This first step of awareness can be noticing when we are feeling hurt by a comment, paying attention to our constant seeking of validation, or simply considering feelings of a lack of purpose and meaning in life. The second step is plugging in the formula into the equation: replacing the Unworthy thought with a Worthy thought. The Worthy thought, or the Neshama thought, can be recognizing that although another doesn’t perceive my Worthiness, I have a Neshama and nothing and nobody can ever take that away from me. It can be repeating to ourselves the refrain that the things I have and the people I associate with are gifts, and they do not define me; I am dependent solely on G-d because my essence is my Neshama, which is a part of G-d. It can be reminding ourselves that because we are gifted with a Neshama, we have been given a unique purpose and mission, and so there is unequivocal reason as to why I am here. It will take time and patience, and we must remain compassionate to ourselves, remembering that the Neshama has not been given to the angel nor to the beast; the Neshama has been given to the human, who is imperfect.
Shipwreck. I am drowning. The boat tipped, and now I am thrashing around in the water, trying to find something to grab onto – anything to save me from suffocating. I am on survival mode. This is all instinct and reflex – if I see someone else, I will grab onto them, even if that means that they have less of a chance of saving themselves. If somebody else grabs onto me in desperation, I will shake them off immediately – they are going to pull me down! I must save myself!!
When we define ourselves by anything other than our Neshama, it is not only ourselves we affect. When we don’t feel the permanence and Truth of our Neshama, we tend to view others either as an opportunity to build ourselves up or as a threat that will pull us down. This mindset will ultimately lead to great disappointments in regards to the status and Worthiness we expect to gain from this, and to unhealthy relationships with the people we are manipulating. When we do no not feel safe ourselves, it feels impossible to be there for another who is struggling. We are fearful that even the smallest tug will drag us down, for instead of seeing another drowning, all we see is a threat to our existence. We become Selfish by default of the fact that we have no sense of Self to begin with.
The Previous Rebbe addresses this concern in a Chassidic Discourse on the Torah portion of Lech Lecha.(10) In the beginning of the Parsha, G-d tells Avraham, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”(11) The Previous Rebbe expounds on the meaning behind these words, explaining how the concept of Lech Lecha is the idea of returning to who we are: the essence of our Neshama. He describes this essence as a purity, as a part inside of us that remains whole despite anything that might have harmed the body. It is a light that by definition is separate from dark. He then goes on to explain how the idea of Neshama is the idea of Selflessness. The words of the verse specifically reiterate the ‘land:’ “from your land… to the land that…” The Previous Rebbe explains that the reason why this is reiterated is because the concept of ‘land’ is the concept of humility and lowliness, which is the opposite of ego. When a person conducts himself with true humility, he is not affected by the syndrome of self-deprecation, for he knows that everything he has is not due to his own greatness but rather to G-d, Who has blessed him with all that he has. This is G-d’s message to Avraham and, through him, to each of us: that we must go to our essence, away from our own ‘land’ of bending ourselves to receive the lowliness of the world, away from the place of ego enclothed within a righteous man’s garments.(12) We must go to the land that G-d will show us – we must raise ourselves to the level of self-nullification, Bitul, returning to the essence of Who we truly are. And, ironically, this lowering of ourselves raises us to the greatest heights, for when we are no longer dependent on the temporary nature of this world, we are driven by the permanence of our Neshama and of G-d, Selflessly.
Selflessness is acquired through viewing ourselves by our Neshama, for when we define ourselves by our innate Worthiness, we define others by this as well. When we feel secure with the definition of Soul, we genuinely love others and want what is truly best for them, for we know them to be secure in who they are as well. Though an action of kindness can seem the same externally regardless of whether it originated from a Worthy or an Unworthy place, the motivation creates the feeling of authenticity or a lack thereof. When we act kindly out of insecurity and a fear of creating boundaries, or out of a desire to have a good reputation, the ingenuity is felt and the kindness is limited. When, on the other hand, we act kindly out of knowing that we have the ability to give when somebody else is in need of our giving, our kindness is genuine and infinite. If it is truly not about ourselves, we will notice whether the ones we are helping truly need a listening ear versus boundaries, a few pennies versus a nourishing meal. We can, with the immeasurable power of the Neshama, create a mindset of Worthiness and Selflessness for ourselves, our friends, and the families we raise.
I am safe. I am no longer drowning for I have been pulled back onto the boat and the storm has stopped. The sun in shining again. The danger has passed. Now, when someone reaches for my hand from the water, I see them not as a threat, but as a vulnerable person who needs my help. Because I am secure, I can help them. Because I am not trapped myself, I can help another who is. And each person helped, each individual that is safe, is not due to my greatness – I was there, drowning and desperate for help only a few moments before. It is due to the Gifts that I have been granted by the Giver of Gifts, and I feel so grateful to be able to use out these abilities for others. I can be selfless because I am safe.
The conclusion is that in order to lead Wholehearted and Healthy lives according to Torah, Self-Worth and Selflessness are not only able to coexist, but one is a result of the other. When we feel the Worthiness of our Neshama fully, we cease living solely for ourselves. Life is no longer a search to fill a never ending void; Living the Truth of the Neshama is the realization that there was no void to begin with. A new mindset emerges, a mindset that sheds purpose and meaning to the Neshama. This mindset is the firm voice inside that reminds us that we can give because we are safe, we are safe because our Self-Worth is infinite, and our Self-Worth is infinite because we have a Neshama.
1 Tanya, Ch. 3
2 Ma’amer Adam Ki Yakriv
3 Job 31:2
4 Shaar Igulim Ve-yosher
5 Heichal Menachem Tanya, based on a Chazal, a Koheles Raba, and also mentioned in the Zohar
6 Ma’amer Reishis Goyim Amalek
7 Hilchos Gittin, Gerushin, 2:20
8 Devarim, 32:26
9 Based on Sicha Shabbos Parshas Ha’azinu 5743, adapted from the Gutnik Chumash , Parshas Ha’azinu
10 Sefer Hama’amarim, ב‘‘תש ,Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha
11 B’reishis 12:1
12 See Hayom Yom, 23 Sivan