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Self-Esteem Is the Secret

At the conclusion of a recent family get together we stood for the requisite photo. The twenty somethings among us said things like, “I want to be on the left. This is my better side. Let me stand in the middle. I look better in that spot.” To be honest, I have no idea which is my better side, despite the fact that photographers often move me around for better angles.

Unlike prior generations, our children are keenly aware of how they appear to others.

They are also the most photographed, and catalogued, group of people in history. What a monumental task to sift through the innumerable digital files we collect in order to stitch together a montage. Today, because of social media, most especially Instagram, people are intensely aware of how they look to others.

The spies returned from scouting the land of Israel and reported, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13) How did they know how they looked to the land’s inhabitants? I wonder. Is their estimation of themselves so diminished that this is how they imagined everyone saw them?

Abraham Twerski who was both a rabbi and psychiatrist, comments:
The person who sees a given object is certain that everyone else sees just what he sees. He does not doubt the validity of his sense of perception, and if he sees a brown-table, he naturally assumes that everyone else also sees the object as a brown table. Similarly, the person who has a perception of himself as being dull, socially inept, unattractive, or unlikeable, is convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is also the way others perceive him. To him, his perception is reality.
The spies could not hear what the Canaanites said about them. They imagined that they called them puny grasshoppers because that is how they saw themselves. They heard the inhabitants saying over and over again, “Look at how small those Israelites are.”

In our own age, this phenomenon is compounded by social media. The tabulation of likes has become the incessant and imaginary voices of the Canaanites saying, “Look at that outfit. Look at his smile. Look at her hair.” And now, I worry. Everyone is in danger of seeing themselves as grasshoppers.

Self-perception is unduly influenced by others. Self-esteem is undermined by likes, or even more so, by their absence.

I wonder how we can better sway our perception of ourselves. Twerski observes, “The way you feel about yourself is the way you believe that others perceive you.” Do his words continue to hold true? His insights from 1987 seem so outdated. Or are they instead prophetic?

Because of the spies’ negative report, the Israelites are destined to spend forty years wandering in the Sinai wilderness. God insists that those who left Egypt as slaves, apart from Joshua and Caleb who offered a positive report, will die in the wilderness. Only those who were born in the Sinai, who were born free, will enter the land of Israel and live there in security.

Those born in freedom do not see themselves as grasshoppers. They instead see themselves as mighty. They are free from the shackles of how others see them.

Does the Torah’s story hinge on self-perception? Is our own redemption tied to self-esteem?

How can we tell our children not to mistake Instagram’s comments and likes for who they are and who they can become? How can we convince our children that faith in themselves, and their own abilities, and most especially their God-given potential is all that really matters? It is this faith in themselves that ensures the Israelites eventual redemption.

This faith makes all the difference in the world. It can likewise change our children’s Torah. It can transport them, like the Israelites, from wandering aimlessly to finding security and arriving home.