Searching for a Synthesis
by Miri Korbman
One of the tenets of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is that it is important to find the synthesis between seemingly disparate ideas. For example, while self-validation and self-compassion are important, one must also recognize when what sounds like self-esteem is really a front for self-aggrandizement. Though human beings require a sense of self-efficacy and self-worth to thrive, we are also susceptible to the dangers of thinking too highly of ourselves, which can impact our relationship with others and affect our behavior in countless ways.
A mental health buzzword these days, self-love is a necessary component to loving others, as is highlighted in the commandment of V’Ahavta L’Rayacha Kamocha (Vayikra 19:18). At the same time, we need to be able to act gently and with humility, to validate others, and to recognize our flaws. Self-love is not a carte blanche for selfishness, and achieving this balance is the tipping point of success, meaning, and spiritual growth.
Self-esteem is often polarized for individuals when they start therapy. Some enter therapy with negative, self-critical inner dialogues, and insist that if they were to stop being overly harsh and extreme in their self-talk, they would become lazy and unmotivated. It takes these individuals time, but the hope is that they can learn that in reality, self-criticism is not motivating, it’s paralyzing, and that self-compassion is not about letting oneself off the hook, but rather about seeing oneself accurately. On the other end of the spectrum are those that enter therapy insisting that they don’t need to change; that they are, actually, perfect, above flaw, and it is really everyone else in their lives (partner, child, teacher) that needs to change. While full of self-esteem, these people are also suffering, for they, too, are not seeing the world or themselves clearly or realistically.
Rav Wolbe notes that there is a detailed process involved in the preparation of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, before its ashes can be used to purify those who have become impure. The kohen takes cedar wood, hyssop, and wool dyed red from a worm, and burns these in the fire with the Parah Adumah (Chukas 19:6). Rashi notes that in addition to being a purification process, the entire Mitzvah of Parah Adumah was also to atone for the sin of the golden calf. The Kohen takes wood from the tallest of the trees, the cedar tree, as well as the lowest, the hyssop, and these are joined by a thread of scarlet wool dyed with the dye of a worm. Why? Because these ingredients symbolize the role of arrogance in leading one to sin. Through this process, one is reminded to lower himself from being like a tall cedar to instead being like a lowly hyssop or worm, because arrogance is at the root of sin.
Rav Wolbe notes as a proof text that when the Jews complain about the Manna and ask for meat, Hashem punishes them with the Slav (quail), and says, “for you have disgusted Hashem Who is in your midst” (11:20). Rashi explains that it was because God was clearly in their midst that Bnei Yisrael became arrogant, and this haughtiness of spirit caused them to sin. Rav Wolbe explains that Rabbeinu Yonah in the Shaarei Teshuva (1:27) calls Gaavah, arrogance, the “plow of transgression,” as haughtiness is what paves the way for sin to grow.
This concept is highlighted throughout our double Parsha. Having accustomed themselves to the miracles God was constantly performing for them, the Jews complain when the well of water they’ve relied upon dries up after Miriam’s death. Later on, Bilam, a recipient of prophecy, also becomes haughty as a result of his access to the Divine and must be scolded by his own donkey for his arrogant attitude. At the end of this week’s Torah reading, we hear about the sin of Kazbi and Zimri, the Nasi of Shevet Shimon and the Moabite princess he brings into his tent. In all of these cases, there is at least a trace of arrogance threaded throughout the chain of events culminating in these different unfortunate incidences.
It is significant to note that the kind of haughtiness experienced by the Dor Hamidbar was in some ways valid; they did hear God speak to them and experienced His Shechina daily through the Mishkan and the Annanei HaKavod. Furthermore, we know that Chazal teach us to think “Bishvili Nivrah HaOlam,” the world was created for me (Sanhedrin 37b), and that we believe every person has within him a Tzelem Elokim, a piece of God within him. In fact, we have experienced on personal and national scales the devastating results of negating one’s godliness, of thinking little of oneself. When we do not think ourselves worthy, when we believe God has abandoned us, that too can lead to sin.
At the same time, however, the danger of arrogance is very grave. This is why Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa taught that every person should have two pockets with a piece of paper in each, to be reviewed depending on need: on one should be written “bishvili nivra ha’olam,” the world was created for me, and on the other, “va’anochi afar va’efer,” I am but dust and ashes (Bereishis 18:27). Rav Simcha Bunim taught that with both of these ideas in mind, one could temper arrogance while also being uplifted from feelings of despair and worthlessness.
This need for synthesis is highlighted in the development of the Mussar movement. There used to be two basic approaches to working on oneself, Gadlus Ha’Adam, the idea that man is inherently great and worthy, and Shiflus Ha’Adam, the idea that human beings are lowly creatures. Both approaches have merit, the former characteristic of the Slabodka Yeshiva, and the latter associated with the Novardok Yeshiva. Today, we recognize the need for a synthesis of these ideologies in helping us reach our potential emotionally and spiritually.
The events of our Parshios and the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah illustrate that we must search for a synthesis by which we can recognize our worth, feel God’s presence and be proud of our connection to Him, while simultaneously remembering our inherent fallibility, and not losing sight of Who we truly must answer to. How can we achieve this synthesis?
Perhaps the events of our Torah portion are juxtaposed with the enigmatic laws of the Parah Adumah because humility is the result of recognizing and accepting that some things in this world and in our lives are beyond our rational understanding. Thus, the Parah Adumah served as a further reminder that even, and perhaps especially, while living with God so tangibly amongst them, the Jewish people were susceptible to sin, so long as their sense of Godliness and greatness was left unchecked. With the institution and implantation of laws beyond our human comprehension, this valid and integral sense of self-importance could be more effectively checked and channeled without becoming a destructive force.
This week, let us examine where we fall on the spectrum of recognizing our human fallibility while also embracing our Godliness and inherent worth. In the pursuit of growth and connection on all levels, we must recognize that there is truth and wisdom on both sides and, rather than becoming polarized and risking arrogance or despair, work to search for that synthesis.