It has become an axiom in our time – almost as self-evident as “You need to breathe to live” – that unless you learn to love yourself, you cannot love others.
Here are a few quotes I pulled off Google:
- “If you don’t love yourself, nobody will. Not only that, you won’t be good at loving anyone else. Loving starts with the self.”
- “Put yourself at the top of your to-do list every single day and the rest will fall into place.”
- “Self-love is not selfish; you cannot truly love another until you know how to love yourself.”
So how dare I challenge the veracity of such a fundamental tenet? Allow me to explain.
I recently discovered a discourse by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in which he states that we can easily perceive – and loathe – arrogance and pride in others, yet we cannot do so in ourselves. Why? Because of ahava atzmis – innate self-love. This love, he explains, allows us to ignore and rationalize our own shortcomings and defects.
This idea, of course, is not original to him. “Adam karov etzel atzmo – A man is biased about himself” states an age-old dictum. The Mishnah (Nega’im 2:5) teaches us that “kol ha’nega’im adam ro’eh chutz mi’nig’ei atzmo – a person sees all blemishes except his own.” Finally, Mishlei (10:12) declares, “V’al kol pesha’im techaseh ahavah – Love covers up all sins.”
Our Creator, it seems, implanted self-love within us almost as a matter of self-preservation. It is this love, part of our neshama tivis (natural soul, also known as the animal soul), that causes a newborn baby to cry incessantly when it is hungry, wet, or tired so that its parents take care of it. It wouldn’t survive otherwise.
Self-love is natural – an essential part of our DNA – which is precisely why we don’t need to work to acquire it. We have it from birth. And when we turn bar or bas mitzvah, we acquire a godly soul (or yetzer tov), which helps us become less self-centered and self-absorbed. The yetzer tov allows us to use our self-love for the sake of others.
Every morning before Shachris, chassidim proclaim: “Hareini mekabel alai mitzvas aseh shel ve’ahavta le’reyacha kamocha – I accept upon myself the positive mitzvah of loving my fellow Jew as much as I love myself” (emphasis added). Since I naturally love myself, G-d commands me to take that love and extend it to my fellow Jews. Although difficult to do, surely everyone would admit that striving to fulfill this task is far more laudable than spending time working on loving oneself.
Some people will counter: But there are those who hate themselves. Don’t they need to learn to love themselves in order to love others?
But the truth is that no one really hates himself. We may hate our circumstances – Why am I not richer, smarter, more successful? – but we don’t actually hate ourselves. If we did, we wouldn’t dwell on ourselves endlessly. We would move on to something else.
As Rabbi Zalman Wolshansky, a chassid and veteran mechanech in Morristown, NJ, for over 50 years, once told me, “You don’t hate yourself. You love yourself, and that’s why you hate everything that’s happening to you!”
We lack sufficient gratitude to Hashem for the gifts He’s given us, so we get into a rut. We feel dissatisfied, depressed, or despondent. We then openly display our frustration and malaise to those near and dear to us despite the great discomfort it causes them. What is regarded as self-loathing is therefore usually nothing but self-love in disguise.
Indeed, even suicide is often the result of self-love. Who else but a self-centered person could possibly abandon or hurt his family and friends the way someone who commits suicide does? One of the great political Jewish leaders of the last century once called suicide the most selfish act possible. A suicidal person focuses almost exclusively on his feelings, which he believes supersedes those of anybody else. He also flouts an explicit divine command not to harm himself.
I recently met a despondent father at a Jewish retreat whose college-age daughter apparently overdosed, killing herself. “Everybody blames me, everybody blames her teachers, everybody blames her friends. When is someone going to hold her responsible?” he asked me, choking back tears.
Our secular culture may tell us to work on loving ourselves, but the Torah sees matters differently. We are tasked with a different goal entirely: to love others with the same intensity and single-mindedness with which we naturally love ourselves.