LIGHTS TO THE FUTURE
PKA (previously known as) SELF-ESTEEM
Since becoming a serious mussar student (of Rabbi Miller's) and then a vaad facilitator, my understanding of self-worth has completely transformed. Self-worth was previously known as self-esteem. According to Webster's, it is defined as "a confidence and satisfaction with one's self." What exactly is that in relation to? Is it saying I am confident and satisfied as I view myself? But, in relation to what? How I manage the tasks of my life and how I review them (by giving myself a grade on how well I did)? So if I did well, I become satisfied with myself. But..... what if I didn't do well? Do I then have "bad self-esteem?" Do I become a bad person who then views himself ALWAYS as a bad person? After I evaluate each act I do, I give myself a grade on my performance. Then, I decide if I am confident and satisfied with myself. That is what was PREVIOUSLY known as self-esteem.
Personally, it is a term I was never comfortable with. It is a phrase of harsh judgment. We either have good or bad self-esteem. Is it possible for someone to be in the middle range? If we have good self-esteem or bad self-esteem, we view ourselves as only good or only bad? Can we be sometimes good and sometimes bad? The deeper we go into it, the more transparent it becomes. It becomes... "I did good or or I did bad" which means "I am good or I am bad." We are then graded, stamped and packaged (by secular standards) according to how well we did. That's self-esteem? You may want to ask yourself if you know any highly successful people who have "bad" self-esteem.
Your Self-Esteem Report Card
So, how do you define yourself? There are many dimensions to this. Probably, the first thought that comes to mind, is a general review of your day. Let's take a quick glance and see what that looked like before Mussar:
1) job (if you have one) -you may think about how well you did
2) activities or hobbies- also how well you did
3) achievements=career, personal, academic- are you satisfied with your performance
4) or maybe it's just knowing that you tried your best to be a good and decent person
Now, it looks like this:
1) Inter-personal relationships: how you thought of, spoke to/or about others and how you acted towards them.
2) Experiencing your day through a mussar lens-trying to live according to the goodness of your holy neshama (soul).
3) Spiritual living- turning all your actions, thoughts and speech towards Hashem and His spiritual purpose for your life, which is now... a specific and defined path for us to travel on.
Self-worth is now, only about, my immutable and inherent holiness and goodness.
It is no longer the grade or score I give myself as I review the tasks of my day and how well I performed them, according to Webster's standards for me.
Now the only thing that matters is that, ALL of my actions, thoughts and speech are rooted in my Tzelem Elokim, being Created in the Image of Hashem. I have a spiritual source from which to live. A new frame of reference. It is the spiritual root from which to conduct the tasks of the my day. I always define myself as good because I am striving to be the best I can be. I do not define myself by my mistakes. Mistakes do not change my essential goodness. Now, I review my day from a reference point. It is based on how well I acted- by Emulating the Attributes of Hashem. It is no longer some mysterious, nondescript review of my day. That was based on secular standards, not spiritual standards. Achievements, grades, performance... for what purpose? To achieve more, get better grades and perform better. Of course, (as always in all mussar lessons)- we are not saying those are not important aspects for a good life. What we are saying... is that when the source of all, is only Hashem, then it all becomes meaningful. It is no longer a grade we give ourselves on how much we achieve or how others judge us, which then cause us to judge ourselves. It is now... only about how HaShem judges us. The answers are clear, no longer obscure. We have a reference book to guide us. It is a book filled with infinite pages of wisdom, advice and role models, eternally teaching us how to live to our greatest potential. We have all we need to help us realize how precious and valuable each one of us is.... we have the Torah. Webster or Torah... which one are you going to live by?
SINS, FLAWS AND SELF-WORTH
Lesson from Rabbi Miller: The Righteousness of King David
Shlomo HaMelech said, "there is not a righteous person who hasn't committed a sin." This is telling us that Hashem expects even a tzadik (righteous person) will sin. We all sin. It is an important aspect of our life that lets us know who we are. No one is perfect due to the presence of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) in our lives. We are all flawed. If we weren't flawed, we would have no purpose. We need the yetzer hara to give us the freedom of choice. We choose which way we want to go. There is no wrong way or right way. There is only one path to follow.... the one that leads us closer to HaShem.
If you sin, do you then define yourself by that sin?
Our mussar challenge is to not define ourselves by our sins. How do we do this? By not falling into the trap of negative force of the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara causes self-doubt. It is a very powerful force that causes cyclones of negative thoughts to go swirling rapidly through our minds. We doubt ourselves, we doubt others and we destroy relationships because of it's powerful influence over us.
Self-doubt is one of the greatest detriments to self-worth.
If we define ourselves by our sins, we are taking our pure essence and saying it is not good. King David said, "Hashem will protect me for I am righteous." Although, King David realized that he might have sinned, he never defined himself by his sins. He always defined himself as a good person who tried his best. Therefore, despite his shortcomings he had perfect faith that Hashem would protect him. This fueled him to continue to perform good deeds. Self-worth is the key to avodas Hashem (service to G-d). Spiritual self-worth is determined through our holy actions.
UNDER THE MUSSAR MICROSCOPE
At first glance, you may be thinking, "oh, I don't do that. This lesson isn't about me. Maybe some people do that, but I don't. I never judge myself by my sins." As always with mussar learning, there is the dimension we immediately see and then there is the hidden dimension, the one we don't see, until we put it under the Mussar Microscope.
Sometimes, our sins are disguised. Let's say you are in a situation in which someone says something hurtful to you. Your emotions are touched and you immediately respond. You may respond with a loud, hurtful tone. You feel certain that the other person was wrong to say what they said. THIS IS THE EXACT MOMENT TO PROCEED WITH EXTREME CAUTION! What happens from this point forward is the turning point towards a sin or holy behavior. How you react to what was said, even if it was wrong, gives you the opportunity to become spiritually elevated or to fall into the trap of the negative force. If that force grabs you and pulls you in, you fall in deep, you succumb to it and it's hard to get out of. When you fall in, no matter how harmful the words of that other person were, you may be the one who ends up carrying the sin. Your reaction to what was side becomes more of a sin, than what was said. Mistakes can become sins, not only from actions... but, also from reactions.
Rabbi Salanter said, "mistakes are the light to the future." The mistakes we make are unintentional. It is like driving into a pothole because you don't know it's there. Now that you know there is a pothole, you will make every attempt to avoid it in the future. So too, our mistakes provide us with the light that allow us to see what was previously dark. Now that we have realized our mistake, it will serve as a light to the future, not to be repeated. Rabbi Miller explained, in this light "a flaw does not negate greatness, it enhances it."
Our sins which were previously viewed as negative parts of ourself that we had to accept, can now be transformed into something rich and meaningful... because we have insight. We now possess insight through mussar wisdom. Our sins let us know who we are. Our sins do not have to be repeated. Our sins give us the opportunity to transform our lesser character traits into holy behavior.
We all make mistakes, the question remains... what are you going to do with it? Our sins only become our flaws if we don't spiritually elevate our behavior. This is what effects our spiritual self-worth. When it's under the Mussar Microscope, you never have to define yourself by your sins.
" A person who is good will never become bad."
This probably sounds absurd at first. Here's the explanation: as long as a person discovers their true essence, which is "their goodness" and ALWAYS STRIVES to stay rooted in it, then... they are able to be good and never become bad. There may be an event that could cause you to lose your place and fall off the track, but as soon as you turn inward and find "your goodness"- you can use it as a light to the future, to transform a negative trait into a highly elevated spiritual trait. By discovering your goodness and making sure all your behavior is rooted in it... This is the path to a good life. The root of all behavior is Tzelem Elokim (created in the Image of Hashem).
Now... how do you define yourself?
The avodah is to always define yourself as good and never define yourself by your mistakes!
May the blessings from your holy behavior be showered upon you!
Note: It is important to keep in mind when learning mussar, that one specific lesson is not the answer to one specific problem you may be experiencing. When in a situation that needs resolution, customize it according to all the mussar knowledge and wisdom you have been learning. ***In certain circumstances, related to serious situations, please consult a professional, doctor, counselor, therapist, or Rabbi.***
A mussar vaad is an environment of spiritual positive encouragement while improving one's character traits through the mussar wisdom of the Torah.