Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski has published over 60 books. When someone once asked him how he could possibly write so many different books, he responded that he hasn’t written 60 different books; he has written the same book in 60 different ways.
The unifying topic of his works is the significance of self-esteem. This includes delineating the destructive effects of low self-esteem and strategies to strengthen it when it is low. The origin of his writings and emphasis on self-esteem, he writes, is Parshat Shelach.
The central story of Parshat Shelach concerns the spies Moshe sent to survey the land. Ten of the spies return to report that the land has some benefits but that they are not confident in the Jews’ ability to conquer the land. The people respond by yearning to go back to Egypt. Consequently, they are forced to wander in the desert for 40 years and not enter the land of Israel.
It’s not entirely clear within the narrative what the spies did wrong. They were asked to scout the land and report back, and that’s what they did. Several answers are suggested within the commentators. We will focus on the one that inspired the entirety of Rabbi Twerski’s writings.
The spies report that they observed the Nefilim, the children of giants. They disclosed to the nation their own feelings of inadequacy, saying, “We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers” and then added “and so we were in their eyes” (Bamidbar 13:33).
What’s unclear from the verse is how they knew what the Nefilim thought of them. One approach, taken by the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 16) is that they actually did not know what the Nefilim thought of them. Speaking from G-d’s perspective, the Midrash says, “That you think you look like grasshoppers – I can overlook that. But that they think you look like grasshoppers – how do you know what they think? Who says they did not see you as angels?”
This, Rabbi Twerski argues, is exactly what low self-esteem does to one’s thinking: “The way you feel about yourself is how you think others perceive you.” Because they thought so lowly of themselves (“like grasshoppers”), they assumed everyone else perceived them that way as well.
G-d could overlook you feeling like a grasshopper. But to assume that other people see you as grasshoppers? To project your low self-image onto others and let that impede your abilities and responsibilities? How do you know they think you’re grasshoppers? Maybe they think you’re angels?
Yet, the conclusion of the Talmud (Sotah 35a) is that the spies actually did hear the Nefilim call them grasshoppers. It was not a projection of low self-esteem; it was reality. They did think lowly of them!
If this’s the case, the message shifts from not having your low self-image distort how you think others perceive you to not letting what others think of you distort your own self-image. Even if the Nefilim thought of them as grasshoppers, they should have had trust in G-d and internal courage to proceed.
Both messages are essential. When we don’t know what people think of us, we should be careful not to be mind readers and project our own inadequacies onto the thinking of others. But even when we know that others think lowly of us, we shouldn’t let their opinion derail us from our mission if we are following the right path and proceeding towards the real or proverbial promised land.