Should a person think highly of himself?
No. And yes. R. Levitas of Yavneh (Avot 4:4) tells us, “Me’od, me’od heve shefal ruach – Be very, very low of spirit.” The Rambam takes him to mean we should deny our egos almost completely to the point that we are not bothered when mistreated by others.
In Hilchot De’ot, he makes the humility/arrogance continuum one of two where the extreme is preferable to the middle road (anger is the other). It seems a Jew is not supposed to think highly of him/herself at all.
At the same time, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 37a) says that courts remind witnesses in capital cases that Hashem started humanity with one person to teach us that each human life is equivalent to an entire world. It should lead us to think, the Gemara says, that “bishvili nivra ha’olam – the world was created for me.”
How do we hold these opposing ideas at the same time? My first rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, R. Ezra Bick, differentiated between expecting of ourselves and reacting to others. From ourselves, we should have the arrogance of great expectations – hold ourselves to as lofty a standard as we can bear, determine to serve Hashem in our own unique ways, which were sufficient for Hashem to create the world. (The Rambam thought highly enough of himself to dare write Mishneh Torah, a work he claimed presented all of the received tradition.)
Lack of ego, utter humility, however, is proper in reaction to slights. We are supposed to be indifferent to insult, humble enough to let it pass unremarked. (There are categories of people who are exceptions to this rule: kings, Torah scholars, and those mistreated in legally actionable ways.)
Bishvili nivra ha’olam, ve’anochi afar va’efer – The world could have been created solely for my contributions, and I am dust and ashes.
— Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, author,
regular contributor to www.Torahmusings.com
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This is an important question because, on the one hand, too great a feeling of self-worth and aggrandizement can bring a person to arrogant pride, which can lead to selfishness, anger, cynicism, aggression against people who do not share his inflated image of himself, and a score of other very serious transgressions.
On the other hand, a feeling of worthlessness paralyzes a person’s ability to act in a confident manner. This caused the sin of the spies in the wilderness, who stated, “We were grasshoppers in our eyes and in their eyes as well.”
The solution is not to adopt a middle path, but rather to grasp the two extremes at the same time. On the one side, to understand that Hashem chose us from amongst all of the nations, and that He loves us with a never-ending love, which imparts us with a great world task.
At the other end of the scale, to remember that this elevated state is a gift from Hashem to all of the Jewish people. Because of this, a person must respect his fellow with the utmost respect with the realization that all his talents are a blessing received from above and not his own personal possession.
This combination creates a powerhouse of capability in an individual who knows that he can act and succeed, while also recognizing that all strength, wisdom, beauty, and material wealth come from his Creator, and that he is a vessel that receives them and not their source.
This understanding graced the characters of our forefathers, Moshe Rabbeinu and King David, who possessed both mightiness in deed and unsurpassed humility – a humility that did not prevent them from acting with assertion and strength.
— Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Tzefas
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Humility is, of course, a cornerstone of Torah and Judaism: “Havei shefal ruach b’fnei kal adam – Be humble before all men.” “Nafshi k’afar l’kol ti’hiyeh pesach libi b’sorasecha – May my spirit be like dust before all [and that will] open my heart to Your Torah.”
We are supposed to stand humbly before G-d (“shavisi l’Hashem l’negdi tamid), especially when praying (“ein omdim l’hispalel ela m’toch koved rosh, m’toch hachna’eh v’shiflus”) and learning Torah, as well as before our teacher (“zrok morah b’talmidim”).
At the same time, one must be careful not to become a doormat (an “askupah ha’nidreses”). A talmid chacham has to have “sheminis she’be’sheminis” – a small measure (an “eighth of an eighth”) of self-awareness lest he be used and stepped on by others. And this pride is necessary in serving G-d (“vayigbah libo b’darkei Hashem”), to walk upright and be proud to be a Jew.
The humble person (an anav) is very different than the lowly person (shafal): A humble person – personified by Moshe Rabbeinu – is aware of his qualities, yet feels modest since they come from Hashem. He also believes that if someone else were blessed with his virtues, he would be greater than him. By contrast, a shafal is someone suffering from low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness, unaware of the gifts G-d has given him.
So, in the final analysis, a person should feel proud and think highly of himself not because he is important and significant, but because Hashem created him with a divine and vital mission – he should be proud that he was chosen by Hashem to be a Jew and fulfill his divine calling.
A person should not say, “My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me” – but he should remember that Hashem gave him strength to make wealth.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson,
renowned Lubavitch author and lecturer
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No. And yes.
This question calls to mind the two divergent schools of mussar: Novardok and Slabodka. The former, founded by Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, taught that striving for perfection required the internalization of shiflut ha’adam, the lowliness of man – how man is driven by his desires and fantasies and routinely succumbs to sin.
Thus, man can only improve by nullifying the ego, which would be accomplished, in theory, by performing acts of self-abasement. Famously, Novardok students would enter a hardware store and request a dozen eggs; the subsequent mockery and humiliation they experienced presumably did wonders to rein in the pleasures of the ego.
The Alter of Slabodka disagreed sharply and focused his mussar on the recognition of gadlut ha’adam, the inherent greatness of man, created in G-d’s image and with a soul that can apprehend G-d’s wisdom and morality. The descendants of the avot and the heirs to the illustrious traditions of Israel must have a healthy self-worth. The people that stood at Sinai and received G-d’s Torah must always act in a dignified and refined way befitting their royal status.
In a sense, these are but reverberations of the aphorism of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: “A person should always carry two pieces of paper – one in each pocket. On one is written, ‘The world was created for me’ (Sanhedrin 37a) and on the other, ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Bereishit 18:27). The test of life is to know when to reach into which pocket.”
The modern self-esteem movement is misguided to the extent that it cherishes everyone, even those devoid of real accomplishment. Life doesn’t award participation trophies, but, as Jews, we must know our place – and adorn that place with spiritual achievements.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, mara d’asra of
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ