The Paradox of Humility and Self-Esteem

Sermon delivered November 16, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


How much can one person write about just one sentence of the Torah? If the person in question is Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the answer is that he could write an entire book, nearly 200 pages, about one little verse.

Tomorrow, Sam will read that line, as part of the great story of Jacob’s dream. As Jacob awakens, he exclaims: “God was in this place, and I did not know.” Throughout the ages, students of Torah have asked: How could Jacob not know? Isn’t God everywhere? Didn’t Isaac and Rebekah raise him to know that?

Larry Kushner took the commentary to that one verse, and created the volume that is a great little piece of Jewish theology. In particular, I have always been struck by two chapters of the book, which seem to be in conflict. In one, Kushner argues that Jacob had previously been too egotistical to recognize God’s presence. Only with humility can he recognize the divine. In another chapter, Kushner insists that, only after developing a sufficient ego, a sense of one’s own importance, can Jacob or any person recognize God. Paradoxically, a person must both be humble and possess sufficient self-esteem. I would add that cultivating both humility and a sense of self importance are also required for each of us to live a good, happy, meaningful life.

Narcissists have a hard time acknowledging God. If the world is all about me, then where is room for God?

Idolatry, in its most potent and pernicious incarnation, cannot be eliminated by demolishing statues of earth or stone. For most of us, the greatest struggle with idolatry is internal. We are our own idols.

The narcissist is an idolater, when he imagines that his own intelligence and perseverance are the ultimate sources of his success.

The narcissist is an idolater, when she bemoans her failures as the results only of her own sloth or stupidity.

The narcissist is an idolater, when he thinks he can fix all of his own problems, as well as those of others.

From time to time, each of us is that narcissistic idolater. Blessedly, we have role models to follow, as we struggle toward true happiness and knowledge of God.

In 1999, when the Spurs won their first NBA Championship, David Robinson and Avery Johnson credited Jesus. Their point was not that their God is a Spurs fan as opposed to cheering for the Knicks. Instead, Robinson and Johnson were humbly acknowledging a divine Source of their own talents and drive.

Similarly, Rabbi Kushner tells a story of the Baal Shem Tov to illustrate the point: “When the Baal Shem Tov was near his death, a student came to him with a hand-written book and said, ‘These are your words, which I have written down. This is the Torah of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.’ The Master read what was written and said, ‘Not one word of this is my Torah.’” The Baal Shem Tov was not suggesting that he had been misquoted. Instead, he was pointing to God as the source of his inspiration.

Perhaps the single most important word of Torah is uttered by Joseph, when asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. Biladai, exclaims Joseph, one Hebrew word best translated as “without me.” Joseph continues: “God will see to Pharaoh’s well-being.” Yes, Joseph will be the interpreter. However, he acknowledges that he is dispensable, whatever his talents. God ultimately gives Joseph the ability, and the desire, to save Egypt, and eventually the Children of Israel, from famine.

As replete as our world is with egotism, sometimes cultivating self-esteem is just as difficult. The two are linked in a story about my coming to Temple Beth-El and San Antonio over fifteen years ago. When I was first ordained as a Rabbi, I was called to serve as Assistant Rabbi at a large synagogue in the Chicago suburbs. Usually, one remains in such a position for at least three years, often longer. I stayed only one; it’s the proverbial black mark on the resume. No, I wasn’t fired. But to give you an idea of what the Senior Rabbi thought of me, I’ll quote from his sermon of welcome at my installation as his Assistant. He said, “and as for Rabbi Block’s humility, let’s just say that he has a strong sense of his own self-worth.” When my parents told Rabbi Stahl the story, well, the rest is history.

I still pray for humility. Others, though, have what seems to be the opposite challenge.

The person with low-self esteem fears that he will never be a “good catch” as a husband, or even as a friend. Another thinks her life so unimportant that her absence will not be felt when she dies. A third scoffs at the commandment to make the world a better place. He asks: What can I do to make any real difference?

On the night of Jacob’s famous dream, he may lack a sense of worth. He may see himself as a sinner. With his mother’s help, he has just tricked his father and cheated his brother out of a blessing. All alone for the first time in his life, he is in the wilderness. He does not see the way out to a better life, to any path toward productive adulthood.

Moses is similarly unsure of himself, when God calls upon him to go to Pharaoh, to seek freedom for the Children of Israel. The greatest leader our people has ever had insists that he lacks the skills and talent necessary to speak truth to power.

Rabbi Kushner suggests that, like Moses and Jacob before us, we have reason to think more highly of ourselves. He makes a play on the Hebrew words of Jacob’s utterance about not having known of God’s presence. A literal, word-for-word translation could be, “God was in this place, and I didn’t know I.” We call ourselves “I,” just like God calls God’s self “I.” Think of the First Commandment: “I,” God says, “am the Lord thy God.” In order to know God, we have to know how very godlike we are.

The most profound message of Torah: Each of us is created in the image of God. We are commanded: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” But does God’s holiness imply that we, mere mortals, must be holy? In a word, yes.

To the man who fears that he will never be a desirable life partner, or even a friend, we affirm: God loves you. God is your friend. So surely you are worthy of human friends, a lover in this world.

To the woman who feels so unimportant that she wonders if her absence will be noted when she dies, we recite our liturgy: God “keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust.” God will remember you for all eternity. In acts of goodness and kindness, however small, you will continue to matter, even after you are gone.

To the person who does not believe that he can really make a difference in this world, we recall the Mishnah: “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you permitted to desist from it.” What each of us does matters a great deal, but we are not expected to save the world alone. Find a partner to share in your good works. Create a community committed to a better future. God will be your partner; God is already holy.

I recently re-read the familiar story about the value of the atheist. When a religious person thinks about hunger, she may say: “God will provide.” The atheist has to feed the hungry. When a religious person thinks about hunger, he may say: “God will provide.” The atheist has to provide shelter.

Religion, sadly, is caricatured in this story. We are religious people with the self-esteem to believe that we can make a difference, that we can feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. We are religious people who are humble enough to know that we need God to be our Partner, as we seek to build a world in which none lacks adequate nutrition, clean water, sanitary living conditions, or medical care.

Humility and self-esteem are not the opposites they may at first seem to be. We all want our children to be confident. We also expect each child to consider the feelings of others, not to act as if he or she is the only person who has feelings. We raise our children to live with humility and self-esteem; let us live our own lives that way, too.

Let us conquer the idolatry of self, even as we rejoice in the meaning of our lives.

Let us be humble enough to know our limits, but let us celebrate our kinship w