Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the oral tradition] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: If you have learned much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, because for such a purpose were you created. (Mishna Avot 2:9).
In an effort to build self-esteem, many people constantly repeat to themselves positive affirmations, accentuating their abilities and talents and praising their own accomplishments. Does this technique work? Research indicates that it depends on the praise, and it depends on the person. If someone with low self-esteem attempts inflated, inaccurate, or undeserved self-praise, it can lead to depression (Kim & Chiu, 2011). Additionally, inflated self-praise, especially when used to boost one’s sense of superiority over others, is linked to narcissism. However, accurate self-praise can be psychologically beneficial.
In a review of self-affirmation theory, Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman (2014) explain that people are motivated to maintain self-integrity, or a vision of oneself as having the ability to be a moral and productive person. In order to maintain self-integrity, one can engage in self-affirmation, which is a behavior or verbal or written statement that asserts one’s adequacy. In clarifying what these affirmations entail, they note an important caveat: Self-affirmations are not about seeking self-praise.
[T]he motive for self-integrity is not to esteem or praise oneself but rather to act in ways worthy of esteem or praise. Having people praise themselves (e.g., “I am lovable”) tends to backfire among those who seem to need the praise most, low-self-esteem individuals, in part because these “affirmations” lack credibility (Wood et al. 2009). People want not simply praise but to be praiseworthy, not simply admiration but to be admirable… An implication for intervention is that rewards and praise are secondary to opportunities for people to manifest their integrity through meaningful acts, thoughts, and feelings.
Praise is not the goal. The goal is to live a life of values and integrity. Praise may be a byproduct of such strivings, but it is ancillary.
As we will discover in the subsequent mishna, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai praised his students for their intelligence and character. Yet, in the above mishna he emphasizes that one should not self-congratulate for learning or following Torah. Through an analysis of the commentaries, we will glean several nuances and potential parameters for when, if ever, it is religiously appropriate, according to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, to self-praise for learning or following the Torah.
The stated explanation in the mishna for why one should not take credit for learning Torah is “because for such a purpose were you created.” As Rabbeinu Yonah explains, G-d created us to learn, so it is the equivalent of someone paying back a debt that they owe, for which praise is unnecessary or undeserving.
Commentaries provide other rationales for why self-praise would be problematic. In an alternate explanation, Rabbeinu Yonah explains that since the Torah corpus is so large, whatever one has already accomplished is just a drop in the ocean. Nobody can ever even approach a point of learning all there is to be learned. Consequently, there is never a time when somebody should reflect and feel proud of how much he or she has accomplished, because there is always so much more to achieve. In a similar vein, in a creative reading of the mishna, the Sefat Emet writes that anyone who has “learned much Torah” knows that it is inappropriate to self-praise. It is only the person who has learned a small amount that feels the need to self-congratulate.
Sforno points to the social dynamics inherent in self-praise. As psychologist Mark Leary (2011) argues, our self-esteem is inherently entwined with social comparisons. Did we accomplish more than our peers? If yes, we have a reason to self-congratulate and feel a subsequent boost in self-esteem. Despite the fact that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai does not mention peers explicitly, Sforno assumes this is implicit:
If you have studied more Torah than your peers, do not attribute this to a greater effort on your part and a lesser effort on their part. For if your innate aptitudes and theirs are unequal, this [disparity] may occur even if both your efforts are equal. Therefore, attribute it to the fact that you were created with a greater propensity [for Torah study] than were your companions (translation by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz).
Sforno seems to be understanding “for such a purpose were you created” more in line with “for this is how you were created.” Despite what may be objective success beyond our peers’ levels of attainment, it is essential to understand that our accomplishments are heavily influenced by forces that are beyond our control. Our greater propensity to understand is determined by G-d, not by us. G-d created us with greater abilities. Hence, there is no reason to self-congratulate on surpassing another’s accomplishments, because they may have put in just as much effort.
This approach of the Sforno begs the question: What if the evidence is clear that we did put in more effort than our peers? What if we spent fifteen-hour days learning over the course of the year while they spent most of their time relaxing and wasting time? Would we then be able to attribute our success to ourselves? Is there ever a point where we can take credit for ourselves because of greater effort? Presumably, if we have free will, and we are rewarded by G-d for our choices, then there is a part of us that is deserving of praise.
Other commentaries point to a story in the Talmud that seems to contradict Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s advice in this mishna. Rav Sheshet, a third generation amora from Bavel, would review his studies every thirty days “and he would stand and lean against the bolt of the door and say: ‘Rejoice my soul, rejoice my soul, for you I have read, for you I have studied.’” (Pesachim 86b). Doesn’t this sound like self-congratulatory behavior?
Rabbi Eliezer Lipman, in his commentary on Avot D’Rebbe Natan (Lekach Tov), argues that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is only referring to praising oneself for natural intellect and abilities. If we are able to process and understand Torah concepts easily, that is how we were created, not something we earned, and therefore we should not congratulate ourselves. However, Rav Sheshet was self-praising for reviewing his learning. That is not an innate trait. Rather, it was something he worked hard at and put in effort to accomplish. If this is the case, then there would be place for self-praise, as long as it is for effort, not for natural ability.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau reconciles the two sources differently. He distinguishes between different types of self-praise: “The answer is that this mishna is speaking of vanity. However, one may and indeed should cultivate a healthy pride and satisfaction, and one should even expect a reward – realizing, however, that it is given as a gift, not as a payment.” If this is the case, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is only discouraging arrogance and narcissism, not accurate self-praise that leads to healthy self-esteem.
While not directly addressing Rav Sheshet’s behavior, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka also distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy feelings of accomplishments. Acknowledging that someone “who has acquired Torah will, quite naturally, feel good about it,” that healthy feeling should not be turned into an ego trip. The way to avoid this harmful perspective is by understanding that “Torah should be seen as the basic norm, that which is basic and essential, that which legitimizes the fact of creation. It is existence itself, nothing special or superimposed on existence. In this perspective, one who has learned much Torah will not become ego-inflated but will instead realize, in humility, that this is what life is all about.”
Building on these ideas and borrowing the aforementioned formulation of self-integrity and self-affirmation will help inform our understanding of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s message. The way to build self-integrity is by acting in consonance with one’s values. As Cohen and Sherman noted, the ideal is for people “to manifest their integrity through meaningful acts, thoughts, and feelings,” and “rewards and praise are secondary.” Learning Torah, like performing mitzvot, is the affirmation of our self-integrity. To praise oneself afterwards is superfluous and could detract from the value of the act. Our self-esteem and self-integrity are maintained by living a life worthy of esteem. There is no need to verbally acknowledge that to ourselves through praise.