The root of the term esteem is the word that means to estimate, i.e., to appraise the value of
something. Let us think, for a moment, about how we accord value to something.
If you look around your home, you will find that you value
things essentially for one of two reasons: (1) they are functional, or (2) they are decorative. A picture may have no function, but it has value because of its aesthetic quality.
Suppose you have a grandfather clock that stopped working.
Although it is no longer functional, you may keep it for its aesthetic quality. It is a handsome piece of furniture. On the other hand, if your can opener becomes dull and no longer works, you discard it. Inasmuch as it has neither ornamental nor functional value, it is worthless.
Some people are indeed so handsome that
they may feel they have aesthetic value. The majority of humanity is not that fortunate. Furthermore, superficial beauty tends to wane with aging. Our value as human beings must be based on function rather than aesthetics. That poses the question, just what is our function? It is rather difficult to assume that our function is to experience the maximum of pleasure available in the world. If we see a person enjoying a tasty meal, we are hardly likely to think that he is thereby fulfilling the purpose for which he was created.
Judaism derives its concept of human function from Torah
teachings. We were created to serve G-d. Avodas Hashem consists of those mitzvos relating to interpersonal conduct and those mitzvos that relate to our devotion to G-d. To the degree that we fulfill our function, to that degree we have value, and to that degree we may consider ourselves esteemed.
The pillar of Torah is chessed (kindness to
others). The patriarch, Abraham, father of the Jewish people, is considered to be the personification of chessed. This concept was made clear by Hillel in his response to the proselyte who asked for a concise definition of Torah. Hillel responded with his interpretation of Love your neighbor as yourself. He said, Do not do anything to another person that you would
not want done to you (Shabbos 31a). Rabbi Akiva reiterated this
concept in his statement that Love your neighbor as yourself is the
all-encompassing rule of Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4). One ethicist stated that all-encompassing means that observance of
every mitzvah in the Torah must somehow contribute to enhancing the quality of consideration for others. Indeed, if after performance of a mitzvah we do not feel a greater love for others, then the performance of that mitzvah was lacking.
Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz emphasizes the pivotal role of
consideration for others. He poses an interesting question. If the goal of life is indeed spiritual development rather than self-gratification, why were we given the cravings for comfort and pleasures that detract from spirituality? Rabbi Yeruchem cites the Torah precept, You shall love the stranger, because
you have been strangers in the land of Egypt( Deuteronomy10:19). In
order to empathize with a stranger and have proper compassion for him, we must remember how we felt when we were sojourners. Similarly, Rabbi Yeruchem states, the reason we were given a variety of desires is so that we may experience distress when they are frustrated. In this way, we can empathize with other peoples needs and do the required acts of chessed to relieve their
One might raise the question, if we had not been given these needs, no one would ever experience any frustration. What is the reason for having needs at all? Rabbi Yeruchems point is that without these needs we would be angels rather than human beings. The Divine wish was that there be human beings on earth rather than angels. A person who strives for spirituality should realize that his personal cravings may be impediments to development of spirituality. This is what Rabbi Yeruchem is addressing. In the pursuit of spirituality, it may indeed be necessary to deny oneself the physical gratifications that detract from spiritual growth. However, if one had not experienced these physical drives, one would not be able to empathize with and to feel for others. This was summed up by Rabbi Yisrael of Salant: The problem with the world is that most people are concerned about their own physical welfare and about the spiritual welfare of others. Rabbi Yeruchems point is a corollary to this. Care for your own spiritual welfare, and for the physical welfare of others.
We have been given the potential to do chessed and fulfill other mitzvos. We derive knowledge of how to fulfill mitzvos from the study of Torah. The greater ones knowledge of Torah, the greater are the
means whereby one can do chessed and fulfill the mitzvos. The
Midrash states that the patriarch Abraham had achieved so advanced a level of spirituality that he had internal fountains which fed him Torah teachings. Because of his profound grasp of Torah, Abraham was a paragon of chessed.
The father of the Mussar movement, Rabbi Yisrael of Salant said, I know that my mind is equivalent to one thousand others. My obligations are, therefore, a thousandfold. This statement
disposes once and for all the contention that self-esteem is gaavah.To the contrary, the greater ones self-esteem, the more one is humbled by the enormity of ones obligations, and the gravity of being derelict in fulfilling them and exercising ones full potential. This is why our sages say, If you have learned much Torah, do not boast of it, for that is why you were created (Ethics of
the Fathers 2:9). Taken together with another statement (ibid. 3:12), namely that a persons deeds must exceed his knowledge, we arrive at the
conclusion that we are merely fulfilling our function when we acquire and implement Torah knowledge. The awareness that we are functional should give us a healthy self-esteem. It cannot possibly justify gaavah.