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A Key to Self-Esteem

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski

Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (32:25)

The Midrash states that the person who attacked Jacob was the guardian angel of Esau. The commentaries add that this angel represents the yetzer hara, the prime spiritual force of evil that wished to vanquish Jacob and his descendants.

The rabbi of Slonim interprets this verse to provide us with an important lesson. He points out that the Hebrew word vayivoser – was left – can also mean “to be superfluous,” and the message of the verse is that Jacob felt that he was superfluous when he was alone, isolated and detached from others.

The Psalmist says, “For I have said that the world is built upon chesed (loving-kindness).” The Chassidic writings interpret this verse as a reason for Creation. Although we cannot have any concept into the essence of the Divine attributes, we are told that God created the world because “it is in the nature of the good to do good” and without a world, there would be no recipients for God's goodness.

We are supposed to emulate the Divine attributes, and the foremost obligation of man is to do chesed. But chesed cannot be done in a vacuum. The phrase, “God said `It is not good that man be alone,' ” (Genesis 2:18) means not only that a person should not be without a spouse, but also that “there can be no goodness when man is alone.” Goodness requires that there be a relationship, a recipient of one's chesed. Inasmuch as the purpose of creation was for man to emulate God in doing chesed, failure or the inability to do chesed leaves a person unfulfilled.

In my writings on self-esteem (Angels Don't Leave Footprints) I pointed out that we value things for one of two reasons: (1) they are functional or (2) they are ornamental. If you have a grandfather clock whose mechanism breaks down, you may keep it as a handsome piece of furniture. If your can-opener no longer works, you discard it. Since it has no esthetic component, it has no value if it is not functional.

On what basis can a person have a sense of self-worth? Few people are so handsome as to be ornamental, and even those who are exceptionally handsome lose their beauty as they grow old. Man's true worth is in his function, and inasmuch as a major function of man is to do chesed, the inability or failure to do chesed deprives a person of a source of self-esteem.

One of the tactics of the yetzer hara is to crush a person by depriving him of the ability to do chesed. The person who is isolated from others and cannot give of himself to others may lose his sense of self-worth. My years of working with people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol has convinced me that one of the factors that lead to addiction is self-centeredness. One recovered alcoholic expressed it this way: “I could look up at people or I could look down my nose at them. They were either far above me or beneath me, but I never felt that I belonged. Alcohol gave me the feeling that I belonged.” This person escaped from the distress of isolation via the anesthetic effects of alcohol.

Feeling that one does not belong causes a person to feel superfluous. The rabbi of Slonim found this message in the verse which he translated as, “Jacob felt superfluous because he was alone.” The low self-esteem and depression incident to isolation renders a person vulnerable to the attack of the yetzer hara.

Doing chesed is not only a great mitzvah, but it also helps a person to have a sense of worthiness and self-esteem.

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