Just as the body cannot function optimally unless it receives its
vital nutrients, neither can the neshamah be in optimal condition unless
it receives its vital nutrients.
If a person has a deficiency of iron, vitamin B or vitamin C, he
will develop symptoms characteristic of that particular deficiency. These symptoms will disappear only when the specific missing nutrient is provided. Megadoses of vitamin C and iron will do nothing to relieve the symptoms of vitamin B deficiency.
The neshamah, too, needs essential nutrients. These are
the mitzvos of the Torah, properly performed. Study of Torah, honesty, courtesy, respect of elders, acts of lovingkindness, tzedakah, truthfulness, and observance of all the mitzvos between man and Gd and
between man and his fellow man are the nutrients of the neshamah. If any
of these nutrients are lacking, the neshamah develops a deficiency
syndrome. The primary symptom of this syndrome is discontent.
Whereas the reason for symptoms of physical nutritional
deficiencies can be readily diagnosed, the reason for feeling discontent is not that clear. People may attribute the feeling of discontent to a myriad of causes. They may try to eliminate the causes they consider responsible for the discontent, but this does not provide lasting relief. Some people think that more money will make them happy. Others pursue acclaim. Yet others may seek relief from discontent in food, tranquilizers, alcohol, or drugs. It may not occur to them that their discontent is due to the lack of fulfillment of the neshamah.
Similarly, failure to develop the talents and skills which one
has may result in discontent. People of limited potential who live up to their potential may be quite happy even though their achievements are meager. On the other hand, people who may have accomplished a great deal but who are not fulfilling their potential are likely to be unhappy.
One can actualize only those potentials of which one is aware.
We noted the words of Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz that a person who is unaware of his strengths has no way of utilizing the tools he possesses.
People can achieve happiness by becoming that which Gd
meant them to be.
In addition to self-fulfillment, true happiness and self-esteem are both dependent on a sense of ultimate purpose in life. There is nothing more depressing than a feeling of futility. A person who lacks a purpose for life may lose the very desire to live. For example, the empty-nest depression that some parents experience when their children leave home is
a result of their misconception that they are no longer of much use. The mother who changed diapers, made the meals and school lunches, and did the laundry may feel that her usefulness is now gone. Fortunately, she may find other constructive outlets, and she can regain her sense of usefulness. The principle, however, is valid. To the extent a person feels he has a purpose, to that extent he can feel happy and have self-esteem. To the extent he feels himself to be purposeless, to that extent he is likely to be depressed and lack self-esteem.
Every person wishes to attain a goal. The striving for a goal is
the drive that motivates people to act. Unfortunately, many people do not realize that while they have intermediate goals, they do not have an ultimate goal. One may have a goal to learn a trade or a profession. For what purpose? So that one may be able to earn and support oneself and a family. Attaining the trade or profession may occupy all ones time and effort, and it is indeed a goal.
However, it is only an intermediate goal. A second intermediate goal is earning a livelihood. This is directed toward what the person may consider his ultimate goal: supporting oneself and the family.
It might be considered foolish to ask, And what is the purpose of supporting oneself and a family? However, it is a question
which must be asked.
Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa said, I see a person so totally engaged in earning a livelihood that he has little time to devote to his spiritual development. I ask him why he does not devote more time to spiritual pursuits. He says, I wish I could, Rabbi. You see, I could get along with much lesser earnings. However, I must provide for my children, and that consumes virtually all my time and energy.
I understand that. However, when these children grow up, they undoubtedly will do the exact same thing. When asked why they neglect their spiritual development, they give the same answer: They must provide for their children. This is repeated generation after generation. Is there really an ultimate child who is the recipient of all the exertion of countless generations before him?
Rabbi Bunims point is valid. Providing for the children is
indeed an important goal, but it is nevertheless an intermediate goal. An ultimate goal has an end point and is not merely a link in an infinite progression.
In Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) posits that the ultimate goal of man is to merit being in the immediate presence of Gd in the Eternal World. Chassidic writings are in essential agreement, but emphasize that it is also possible to achieve an awareness that one is in the immediate presence of Gd in this earthly world. Certainly, those who saw the cloud descended upon the Sanctuary when Gd spoke with Moses were aware that they were in the immediate presence of Gd.
A person can achieve this goal via avodas Hashem (service of Gd), which is comprised of observance of the mitzvos
in the Torah. Of primary importance in achieving the spiritual state of closeness to Gd is the development of proper middos. Ramchal then
goes on to elaborate on the ten levels of spiritual development.
Spirituality requires dedication to this ultimate goal. However, the attainment of spirituality is hampered by the drive to gratify ones
physical desires. Man is therefore caught between two opposing drives. His neshamah (soul) seeks spiritual fulfillment, whereas his physical body
craves gratification of its desires. Man faces a challenge: to subdue the physical drives and bring them under the dominance of the spiritual drives. The nature of the challenges encountered in life may vary from person to person.
That avodas Hashem is the way to the ultimate goal is
clearly stated in the Torah. Now, O Israel, what does Hashem your Gd
ask of you? Only to revere Hashem, to go in all of His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem with all your heart and with all your soul
(Deuteronomy 10:12). The Talmud states that the commandment to love Hashem means to make Hashem beloved (Yoma 86a). The Talmud goes on to say that this is accomplished when one behaves in a manner that will cause others to respect the Torah and to respect Gd. This, in turn, is accomplished by refinement of ones middos.
The Talmud relates that R Shimon ben Shatach bought a mule. In the mules saddle was found a valuable jewel. R Shimons students said, Look! Hashem has blessed you with wealth.
R Shimon said, I paid for a mule, not for a diamond. He returned the jewel to the mules owner, who said, Blessed is the Gd of Shimon ben Shatach!
(Devarim Rabbah 3). When one behaves honestly and decently, one brings honor to Hashem and makes Hashem beloved. This is the fulfillment of the ultimate goal in life, and it is this refinement of middos that builds self-esteem.
In an important essay, Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz discusses the
nature of the challenges a person may confront. He points out that Jacob blessed his twelve sons with blessings that were appropriate for each
one (Genesis 49:28). Jacob knew his childrens characters, and his blessings to each one corresponded with that persons unique character
(Daas Chochmah UMussar, Vol. 4, pp. 339-347).
Rabbi Yeruchem goes on to formulate a fundamental principle:
A person can achieve perfection only by guarding and
developing the potential of those character assets that are unique to his personality.
Every person has certain character traits and may lack others.
One is not held responsible for developing traits with which he was not endowed. He is held responsible for failure to develop those he
Rabbi Yeruchem cites the principle that Gd does not test a
person with a trial that he is incapable of withstanding (Avodah Zarah
3a). The patriarch Abraham was tested with martyrdom for clinging to his faith because he had the innate capacity to have strong convictions. Joseph was tested with temptation because he had the innate capacity to withstand that challenge.
It might seem that inasmuch as ones primary obligation is to develop and perfect ones inherent capacities, the task should be a relatively easy one. After all, it is only a matter of reinforcing ones
natural endowments. While it is indeed easy once the deterrents to this are eliminated, overcoming the deterrents may be quite difficult. The deterrents are those traits and drives that distract a person from tending to his primary obligations, and result in his neglecting them. Common deterrents are envy, seeking acclaim, and pursuit of physical pleasures. If a person recognizes his primary obligations and tends to them, rejecting these deterrents, he will then be well on his way to perfecting himself.
Obviously, if a person is unaware of his innate capacities, he
cannot develop them. Inasmuch as he does not realize just what it is that he should be developing, he may lack the motivation to eliminate the deterrents. He may see no purpose in denying himself indulgence in physical pleasures. It is only if he appreciates his character assets that he may see a reason to forgo the physical pleasures which would prevent him from developing his strengths.
We can now see that self-esteem, as we have defined it, is
absolutely essential for avodas Hashem and for self-actualization. The
point that was made earlier -- that the yetzer tries to render a person
oblivious to his character strengths -- is now clearer than ever. The yetzer triumphs in its effort to thwart avodas Hashem when it
makes a person unable to develop his character assets to their fullest.