To Be or Not To Be and Why It Matters

Shaina Ezagui, Palm Beach Garden, Florida
Essays 2019 / Self Esteem

The most fundamental and ultimate state of being discussed in Chassidic life is humility. Developing humility is the key to replacing depression with an inner joy and self worth allowing for one to go beyond his reality and cultivate a relationship with G-d and the world accordingly. This essay will be primarily based off of the Maamer of Vayikiblu Hayehudim together with other talks and reference of the Rebbe regarding the topic of humility, its affects, and a path towards obtaining it.

In Chassidus and as also seen in the human psyche, everything has a positive and negative flipside. While a lack of self confidence may be misinterpreted as virtuous humility and self-nullification, a discerning mind can recognize that it is sourced in feelings of inferiority, which could ultimately lead to depression that many suffer from.(1) Since Yeshus (feeling one’s own existence and importance) is congruous with an exaggerated self-importance, Chassidus teaches that it is sourced in Kelipa (The Dark Side). However, a healthy self-esteem is consistent with Kedusha (holiness), nurturing a sense of security in a person.(2) A healthy self esteem may be known in Chassidic terms as Bittul. This can be observed in the fact that anxiety and depression is most often consistent with selfishness and self-love. People that are self-interested always look at a situation for what is in it for them. On the other hand, selflessness is harmonious with a healthy self esteem and confidence which bestows upon an individual an inner joy. This is in light of the fact that a true joy can only burst in where there is no ego to interfere.

So what is humility?

While the concept of Yeshus (an over-magnified sense of self) and Bittul may be on contradictory sides of the Chassidis spectrum, they are both categorized in terms of space. Egotism and self-indulgence doesn’t allow for the existence of others since it views other beings as a disparagement and infringement to its own.(3) This can lead to baseless hatred, caused for no reason besides the other person simply existing and “invading” your space.

On the other side of the scale lies humility. Just as one is unable to lift himself by his own hair, humility is the realization that he can’t surpass himself without a support that is greater than himself. This is because Bittul means to leave space for G-d and other beings by putting himself aside and facilitating peaceful coexistence. If a deed is done purely based off of an extrinsic reasoning, like social motivation or selfishness, it doesn’t have the ability to awaken G-dliness. This can be translated in the practical illustration of the story of the Garden of Eden. The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains the leading failure of the Tree of Knowledge(4) to be Adam’s fetish with the “I” which ultimately brought evil into the world.

Chassidus teaches that Chochma (conceptual knowledge) reflects Bittul. Chochma is an expression of the Hebrew words “Koach Mah” which can be translated as “The potential of what?” “What” indicates an unstructured and flexible nature.(5) Chochma is undefined since it exists only as a potential for creation.(6) Moreover, since Chochma exists only in possibility, it also serves as the origin of immanent being.

Our body is an entity which survives simply because of our soul while our soul lives for G-dliness. Therefore, we need Bittul and self-abnegation as the ultimate means to get through physical life, since it allows G-dliness to enter our limitations. This is why angels live forever considering their perfect resignation to G-d, which is the instant one essentially becomes one with G-d.(7) Humility is both a precondition and a direct result of being one with G-d. Concerning Moshe, the verse states, “Eved Ne’eman Korasa Lo, U’klil Tiferet Nosata Lo”(8) This means, Moshe, being a trustworthy servant of G-d, was gifted a crown of splendor. Although under natural circumstances a king would never place his crown even on the most trusted of servants, G-d was able to grant His crown to Moshe because he had attained the level of Bittul where he became a part of G-d and completely nullified to Him. The acrostics of the verse, “And behold, G-d is standing upon him”(9) creates the Hebrew word for humility, Anavah, displaying the fact that the closer one is to a mountain, the smaller he feels.

Clarification of humility:

Contrary to popular belief, humility doesn’t mean the disqualification of one’s self. Moshe, being the humblest man to live, was able to testify to his special capabilities only because he knew of his spiritual height demonstrating self-awareness.(10) Self-awareness and humility do not contradict one another, yet they actually feed off of each other.

Humility is being aware of your gifts and powers whilst being convinced that if anyone else possessed them, they would accomplish far more. This is because humility is when one acknowledges G-d as the true and only source for everything. As finite beings, our conscious minds don’t have the capability to sense the infinite. Therefore, Bittul serves as a means to allow us to transcend our finitude and thus be compliant to a higher power while still retaining our own individuality. The Torah commands one to believe that “For my sake the world was created”. Although this may seem self-centered, Bittul helps one find G-d in their personal world thus empowering him to feel unique and as if he is the only one. Humility isn’t defined as being in an absolute remote and aloof state, disconnected from the world. On the contrary, if you remain fastened to your humility, you’ll have the capacity to enjoy the perfection within the world without being ruled by its imperfections.

Angels experience G-d as perceived by an Ayin (nothing) – a level unobservable by a Yesh (something conscious of its existence). This is why they don’t have a personal identity at all and affirm to an intense sense of nothing in the essence of their being. As human beings, we perceive G-d from the perspective of a Yesh and therefore this level of Bittul is one lower than that which the angels enjoy. Bittul Hayesh is subservience and abnegation of ourselves to something that lies outside the space of routine. Furthermore, it is the feeling that we are nothing more than an emanation of a higher source.

Effects of having Bittul:

Bittul allows for one to transcend his physical desires and immerse himself in a deeper reality than ordinarily possible – an abstract reality which grants him the ability to see the world as it is, in its essence. When one begins to see the world and the mundane for it’s core, all ulterior motives fall away and this will automatically allow space for G-d in as much as the presence of other creations into his life. Everything around him consequently becomes Divine. He begins to relate to the Sublime materiality of G-dliness, until the point where he is swept away in oneness with G-d.(11) When one transcends himself in subservience, he is able to grasp G-d, thus negating the verse, “No thought can grasp Him”.(12) This is in light of the fact that humility is the quality of Chochma (as explained above) which is the source for understanding G-d, and therefore someone with humility is susceptible to G-dliness as it says, “If there is no Chochma, there is no fear of G-d”.(13) Bittul isn’t a path towards holiness; it is simply the sole vessel compatible with G-dliness.

By allowing G-d to permeate our space and others to in as well infringe on it, we will ultimately allow ourselves to forgive both ourselves for our past wrongdoings as well as others who may have wronged us. This is because forgiveness is only realistic when we look at our essence at its core of perfection. As long as you take the “I” out of the situation, you are able be detached. Forgiveness in itself is not a human trait of ours yet it is a G-dly attribute within us.(14) So when we dive into our Divine state of being, we have the ability to forgive. This comes about through Bittul because we come to the realization that we define the person’s wrongdoings not because he wronged me, but because he dared to defy G-d. This is how we make ourselves objective in order to give ourselves the capacity to forgive.

This all comes about because of an inner joy that the person obtains from having Bittul. Not being self concerned allows for one to truly celebrate life.(15) While Yeshus fills one’s entire space with egocentrism, he must utilize the ‘space’ in a higher context of humility. This humility welcomes everything optimistically and will hold a person’s hand even in the times of challenge. It will help fulfill the command a Jew has to bless G-d for misfortune the same way he blesses G-d for goodness,(16) since Bittul enables him to go beyond his personal and subjective differentiation of pleasure and pain. In other words, the person will achieve mastery over his emotions since emotions only pursue self-delight. When dealing with low self worth, a common belief may be to assert to one’s personal needs (17) as a method to rehabilitate. Research suggests that increase in aerobic exercise that is individually tailored to support may improve one’s mental state. This is owing to the fact that he will gain a greater awareness of himself as an individual on his own. So while therapists often advise to counter low self-confidence with Yeshus, Chassidus teaches that the only way to gain a healthy self-confidence is through Bittul. Humility will give a person a sense of inner tranquility since he recognizes how special it is that the King of Kings desires to dwell within him! The person then feels of no independant importance because he lacks Hergesh Atzmo (feelings of an over exaggerated sense of self). He has an intrinsic motivation to achieve, stemming from something far higher than himself which grants him an unbounded joy – a freedom from himself.

Successfully cultivating Bittul:

Humility is understanding that which is incomprehensible: The knowledge of existence, yet the choice to relate to and be a slave to something beyond existence, granting true freedom. The medium for this may be faith, which stands in realms far higher than our ordinary consciousness. Faith causes the Yesh to be Bittul to the Ayin. Having perfect faith fulfills the purpose of creation – to transform our outlook that we are Yesh M’Ayin (something from nothing) into the perspective that we are merely an Ayin which came about from the only true Yesh, G-d. This is undeniably beyond the intellect of finite beings.

It says, “The L-rd is a G-d of knowledges”(18), indicating two levels of faith. The first and higher level is the knowledge of G-d as perceived above – as an Ayin, a level unattainable by a Yesh. On this level, there is no idea of G-d’s kingship because in usual standards, a king requires a people in order to rule, yet here the nation is completely one and part of the King.

The second and more relevant level of faith is the knowledge of G-d as perceived by a Yesh. On this level, the kingship of G-d is preconditioned by a nation completely subjugated to Him. In order to fulfill the goal of our service, which is to internalize this faith to permeate our consciousness, we need meditation.

A fundamental concept in Chassidism is Hisbonenus (The intellectual practice of meditation). Meditation means to distance oneself to something greater. By detaching from oneself, he commits to the unbounded. In this case, the lower level of faith and the one relevant to us, requires meditation of how the world was created ex nihilo, and in order for matter to come into existence and becomes a reality, G-d must do the impossible of combining a Yesh with an Ayin. Yet as wondrous as this is, the greatness of G-d expands more in the fact that above all this, He must conceal His infinite presence in order to cause physicality to feel self-sufficient. This contemplation of G-d’s greatness must be integrated as faith into a man’s consciousness until the point where he becomes a “chariot” to G-d and His oneness.

Practically, this can be done through Torah study.(19) When the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple) was standing, it was the only vessel compatible for G-dliness to dwell within. The Talmud tells us that today, when the Beis Hamikdash no more stands, the proper vessel for G-dliness is the four cubits of Halacha (The Code of Jewish Law) since that is where G-d chooses to express His will. In addition, when one learns Torah, he is endowed with the gift of truth that physicality is of no consequence to him. This is reflected in the spiritual realms where the light of G-d transcends all the worlds to the extent that they are entirely insignificant. A person who achieves this realization will not be bothered by other people since he is comfortable with himself and has a healthy self-esteem, also known as Bittul. Just as the higher worlds appreciate their insignificance in relation to G-d, if we do so as well through contemplation, we will then have the capability to transcend our individual existence and our materialistic desires will give away.

This contemplation goes hand in hand with the attribute of honesty. What causes a person to ask for help from G-d for a mere desire? A lack of Bittul and honesty. He gets caught up in a subtle expression of dishonesty – self-serving desires that are rationalized. On the other hand, the greater amount of honesty a person has, the more humility is expected of him.(20) This is because, as we explained above, humility doesn’t mean he must deny his qualities but to acknowledge that whatever he accomplished is not exclusive to him, since if someone else were to be given the same opportunity, he would be able to attain far greater heights.

The takeaway:

Just because a sage distances himself from the people, it is not because he looks down on them but simply because he is on an elevated level. This lofty level is that which one is unbothered by others since he has a security within himself because of his Bittul. This intrinsic joy allows a person for the virtue of forgiveness and richer relationships with G-d as well as the world as a whole. A better relationship with G-d is created by contemplating His potential to actualize the impossible. Study shows that meditation may cause as much relief from poor self-esteem and depression as antidepressants.(21) This constitutes a sense of honesty – honesty that you are only the existence you create yourself to be, because of G-d. While psychology may believe that in order to fight feelings of low self-worth one must gain control of all operations in his life, Chassidus teaches that he must submit all control to a higher source. Once you take the “I” out of the picture, G-d has room to abide within you. This is done practically through the study of Halacha – That which G-d dwells within. Since faith is the producer and processor for Bittul, may we all merit to internalize our faith to see past ourselves in order to acknowledge “Me’Ayin Yavo Ezri”(22), that our help comes when we are a non-being and recognize our Supernal source. May we reach the ultimate state when the only “I” in our life be the command of “I am the L-rd, your G-d.” The Divine “I”.

1 Tanya, Chapter 26
2 Hayom Yom, 26 of Cheshvan
3 Maamer Hechaltzu, Chapter 3
4 When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit
5 Mebrei Or, Entry 40, Section 13
6 A testament to this may be in the verse, “Chochma emerges from nothingness”. (Job 28:12)
7 Maamer B’Sha’a She’Hikdimu 5762, Vol 2, Page 684
8 Maggid Meisharim, 45:2)
9 In Hebrew: והנה ה‘ נצב עליו
10 Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 13, Page 30ff
11 “The Practical Tanya”, By Chaim Miller, Chapter 33
12 Tekkunei Zohar, 17A
13 Avot 3:10
14 As we say. “G-d G-d who is compassionate and gracious”
15 Sefer HaMaamorim 5769, Maamer Chaya Sara 5741
16 Mishna Brachot, 54A
17 BMJ study research from Universities of Bristol, Exeter, and Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry
18 In Hebrew: א-ל דעות ה
19 Tanya, Chapter 34
20 “The Letter and Spirit”, Page 282
21 John Hopkins research in The Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine
22 Psalms 121:1