July 20, 2024
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When We Lose Faith in Ourselves

Faith in Mankind

The Jewish people were nervous and scared. Forty days had passed, and Moshe had yet to return from Har Sinai. They approached Aharon HaKohen to ask for a replacement. Strangely, instead of suggesting that Aharon replace Moshe himself, they asked him to create a graven image. Why choose a man-made, inanimate object over the man who made it?

Rav Yechezkel Weinfeld sees the answer in their words to Aharon: “Zeh Moshe haish lo yadanu meh hayah lo—We do not know what happened to this man, Moshe,” (Shemot 32:1). Moshe’s disappearance caused the Jewish people to lose faith in not only Moshe, but all of humanity.

They were unwilling to appoint another human leader because humans are inconsistent and unreliable. They can be here today but disappear tomorrow. A figurine may not be divine, but at least it is predictable and dependable. It remains where you leave it and does not disappear without warning. The people chose the worship of a “reliable” inanimate object over trust in humanity.

Hashem brought the makkot to Mitzraim and split the sea through the hands of Moshe and Aharon to show the significance of man as Hashem’s agent. When the Jews arrived at Sinai, Moshe climbed the heavens to receive the Torah. Mortal man has the potential to reach the heavens and the right to receive the Torah.

Moshe’s performance of miracles and ascension to the heavens should have reinforced the Jews’ confidence in man. Tragically, they misunderstood Moshe’s delayed return as having the opposite implication.

 

Faith in Humanity

The sin of the egel (golden calf) is rooted in man’s first sin—the eating from the Etz Hadaat. The snake convinced Chavah to eat the forbidden fruit by promising her that it would make her godly (Bereishit 3:4-5). The snake was right. Eating from the tree did, indeed, make man more godly. It was just not who he was supposed to be.

Hashem’s intention for us is clear—to live in His world as human beings, created in His image (Bereishit 1:26-28) and invested with honor and glory (Tehillim 8:6). We should be able to recognize our inherent value without needing to determine what is good and bad. By following Hashem’s guidance on developing ourselves and His world—His distinctions between good and evil—we can play the meaningful role He intends for us, thereby affirming our self-worth.

Adam and Chava did not appreciate this. Unsatisfied by their creation in God’s image and the vital role He intended for them as human beings, Adam and Chava felt the need to transcend their humanity. Their sin brought about not only curses that made life more difficult and their expulsion from Gan Eden, but also their mortality. Hashem initially gave man access to the tree of life, which enabled eternal life. After man tried to become God, Hashem used mortality to remind him of his humanity (Bereishit 3:22-24).

Adam and Chavah—like their descendants who worshiped the golden calf—failed to appreciate humanity’s value. Adam and Chava tried to transcend humanity; the Jews in the desert sought a substitute.

To atone for the sin of the egel, Hashem mandated the contribution of the machatzit hashekel (a half of shekel) (Shemot Rabbah 31:1, Yerushalmi Shekalim 2:3). The Torah describes the mitzvah as aiming to “raise the heads of the Jewish people (Shemot 30:12).” Their sin flowed from a lack of self-esteem; the subsequent punishment reinforced this feeling. The mitzvah of machatzit hashekel aimed to remind them of their worth (Bava Batra 10b). They were worthy enough to contribute towards and ultimately build mishkan which would “house” Hashem’s Shechina.

 

Faith in God’s Love

Unfortunately, the problem of their low self-esteem lingered and, eventually, led to the sin of the meraglim (spies) and their death in the desert.

The spies returned from Eretz Yisrael with a terrifying report about giants residing in well-fortified cities. Though we understand why this intimidated the Jews, we wonder how the makkot they saw in Mitzrayim and at Yam Suf and the miracles they experienced in the desert failed to reassure them. Could they have possibly doubted Hashem’s ability to help them defeat the giants and conquer the land of Israel?

Moshe’s account of the rhetoric of their cries answers our question. At the beginning of sefer Devarim, Moshe recalls how the Jewish people were mourning in their tents, saying that Hashem hated them and had brought them to the land of Israel to deliver them into the hands of its fearsome inhabitants (Devarim 1:27). They did not doubt Hashem’s ability to help them; they questioned His interest in doing so, (Seforno ibid.).

Of course, we know that Hashem actually loved the Jewish people (Rashi ibid.). That is why he redeemed them from Egypt, gave them the Torah and protected and provided for them in the desert. The Jews assumed that Hashem hated them because they saw themselves as unworthy of His love. They were incapable of appreciating Hashem’s love because they attributed their own feelings to Him. Their low self-esteem caused them to explain away all of Hashem’s assistance as motivated by His dislike for them and part of His plan to harm them.

This low self-esteem also expressed itself in the spies’ report, which included how the giants saw them as grasshoppers. Interestingly, they first described how they saw themselves that way: “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes. And so were we in their eyes (Bamidbar 13:33).” The spies attributed their lowly view of themselves to others and may have even caused others to see them that way.

The spies’ and their generation’s low self-esteem impacted how they perceived their relationship with Eretz Yisrael and Hashem and their ability to rely upon Hashem. This made them unworthy to enter Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they died in exile in the desert.

Their death in exile generated future exiles which reinforced our low self-esteem and insecurity (Yalkut Reuveini, Bamidbar 14:21). The curses of parshat Ki Tavo depict how exilic persecution and fear cause Jews to lose “belief in their lives (Devarim 28:66).” The first generation of Jews died in exile because they did not value themselves. Later generations are punished in ways that reinforce this problem.

The Impact on the Individual

Low self-esteem is also a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Rav Nachman MiBreslov explains that the main reason people allow themselves to sin is mochin d’katnus—a “small-minded” view of ourselves and our actions as inconsequential (Likutei Halachot, Birchot Ha’reiach U’Birchot Hoda’ah 4). If we and our actions do not matter, why take either seriously?

This is why the mishna in Avot cautions us to “not see ourselves as a rasha.” One who sees himself as a rasha will inevitably act that way. One who sees himself as a tzaddik will try to live up to that level (Avot 2:13 with Peirush HaRambam).

Though humility is an important character trait, when applied in excess, it leads to sin. Extreme humility distances people from avodat Hashem because it causes them to see their actions as insignificant. Of course, we should remember that we are all imperfect human beings who live only by the grace of God. But we should also remind ourselves that we, our lives and our actions are of great value.

In the coming weeks, we will, iy”H, study the many reasons we should see our lives and actions as valuable.


Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA. His new book, “Essentials of Judaism,” can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com.

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