Posted on | November 1, 2006 | By Guest Contributor | 9 Comments
Our children are doing worse than ever. Why?
By Rabbi Zvi Homnick
BLAME IT ON SELF-ESTEEM!
Seeing the tremendous challenges and hurdles that our educational system is struggling with, we are all collectively trying to figure out where we are going wrong. There are many views and opinions out there, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that our children are suffering from poor self-esteem. Self-esteem seems to be at the root of all of society’s ills, from depression and drug abuse to road rage and relationship failures, and even the occasional school shooting. It seems as if every problem endemic to the human condition can be traced back to good old self-esteem and the lack of it, particularly in early childhood.
We are told, nay exhorted, that a child has to feel good about himself, that he’s important, that he’s special, that he’s capable. Self-esteem is something all parents want to give their children, and some work hard at it; others do not. They criticize their children and then feel guilty about it, saying their parents did it to them. So, parents find themselves doing one or the other, either boosting self-esteem or feeling guilty about not doing so.
If the home did not adequately provide it, and the schools somehow fall short, we have the mental health profession ready to step in. We have therapists and therapies, and if necessary, there are Twelve Steps and lifetime recovery programs. Some people just never seem to grasp that elusive panacea to all of humankind’s ills, and might even end up in prison! Surely, the only person who would commit a criminal act is someone who lacks you-know-what.
Yet, most kids don’t seem to have self-esteem after all this! Why is this so when this is what we are all working on? Some explain that because parents and educators themselves do not have it, they cannot give it to their children and students. Occasionally, you meet people who seem to have too much self-esteem, inflated egos, and you realize there is something wrong with them, too. So the problem is there is either not enough, or too much. Nobody seems to have figured out how to get exactly the right amount. And nobody has figured out how to give kids exactly what they need, but one thing everybody is convinced of is that the key to all problems lies in self-esteem.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Once while addressing his students in the early seventies, the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that the great challenge of our generation is the feeling of “mi ani u’ma ani,” a famous Hebrew term meaning “who am I, and what am I?” People feel, deep down (the Rebbe said in tears), that they are worthless, that they don’t really exist. People have a tape recorder constantly going in their minds declaring, mi ani u’ma ani, “I amount to nothing.” Every time and any time you have a moment of inspiration, a thought to do a good deed, a thought to change yourself, improve yourself, change your home, improve your life, to contribute more, to do something better, a voice in your head says – who do you think you are?
When you want to indulge yourself, that question doesn’t come up, but when you want to do something positive, you really want to make a strong commitment to something, to a person or a project, the self-doubt tape begins to play. It does not matter what it is, any slight improvement, spurt of growth, any push beyond your comfort zone, anything you want to undertake – the tape plays.
If for some reason the voice in your head is not loud enough, at times your friends and family will help out. They will all give you messages of – come on, who do you think you are? You? You are getting all holy, all loving, all spiritual, what is this? They’ll criticize you, put you down, or just take the wind out of your sails. Where does this come from, that the whole world is looking for self-esteem, and that they have too much of it for the wrong things and too little of it for the right things?
THE MALADY OF THE CENTURY
The Kabala explains that all physical sickness is a manifestation of a spiritual disease, and the physical symptoms mimic the spiritual disorder. The most devastating illness of our time, cancer, is one in which the cells multiply and grow in a manner disproportionate to the rest of the body, and overtake the entire organism, until every other organ and every other part of the body is consumed by these cells. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once  suggested that this reflects the spiritual malady of our time, which is a distorted, disproportionate sense of self. That when it comes to the wrong things, our self-esteem is too overblown, and when it comes to doing good, the biggest problem we have is “who am I, and what am I?”
What is happening? We keep trying to bolster our children’s self-esteem. We also have many more counselors, therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Yet, no one is getting better. For the most part, everybody seems to be getting worse.
What is the secret behind this phenomenon? Why is it that two hundred and two thousand years ago, it seems, people possessed healthy egos; they believed that their existence was real, and now, in such a progressive and prosperous age, our children are unsure of their very identity?
The answer to this question lies in a better understanding of the generational evolution of Jewish religious theology.
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW
For over three thousand years, a significant number of Jews lived their lives according to the dictates of the Torah, guided by the sages of each generation. Throughout that period, the study of Kabala, or the esoteric dimension of the Torah, also revealed at Sinai, was the province of the spiritual elite. This was by design, with strong admonitions against revealing these teachings to those not deemed worthy. Only since the 14th century, and even more so in the 18th century, since the advent of the Hassidic movement, have these teachings become available to the masses.
Judaism teaches that there is no such thing as a random event or sequence of events, and surely, there must be a compelling reason for the withholding of these teachings and their subsequent revelation in our times. There are many explanations given for this phenomenon, yet the discerning student must conclude that they are all facets of one central theme.
One may live a life of piety within the bounds of human perception and self-awareness, guided by Divine moral dictates and commandments. In this traditional view of the Jewish religion, every person sees himself as an individual who has a private life, which includes many areas of interest and involvement. For a person of faith, part of that life includes obligations to one’s Maker. Serving your Maker may be an important part of your life, or a key part of your life, perhaps the most important part of your life – yet, a part of your life, not your whole life.
One may even consider G-d’s laws to be the most important part of life. Especially, if one remembers that the most important thing is not this world but the World to Come, so that the more energy one puts into one’s obligations in this world, the greater are the rewards of the next world. Yet the “I” of the person is his or her own; we make sacrifices for G-d and His law, but we retain an I that is distinct of G-d.
For many people, this was the meaning of Judaism for thousands of years. For many Jews it is still this way. Religion is a lifestyle they undertake in order to live a healthier life, to receive reward in the World to Come, to feel good about themselves, or perhaps to provide a more stable environment for their children. Yet Kabala and Hassidism teach that the above description, notwithstanding its merit, lacks the core of Judaism.
THE TRUTH ABOUT G-D
Kabala and Hassidism lay bare the inner workings of creation. They present in clear terms the radical truth, that all of existence is merely a projection of higher spiritual forces, which in turn are merely rays of Divine emanation The meaning of the first two commandments, “I am G-d your G-d”, and “You shall have no other gods before me,” is not only that there are no other actual gods. It means there is nothing in existence aside from and independent of G-d. 
In Kabala we learn that the idea of an autonomous world is an illusion. The only thing that exists is G-d, for the entire world is submerged in, and is part of, G-d’s reality. The physical piece of bread we consume is not something separate from Him; it is a manifestation of Divine energy. G-d is the reality of every reality. Everything that exists is in truth a reflection of G-dliness, it is only due to His ability to conceal Himself that there are many things that seem to be not-Him, including ourselves. We experience ourselves very intensely as being me and not Him, to the point that people can say He does not exist. G-d is so skillfully concealed, that even though the opposite is true – He exists, and I do not exist independently of Him – I can think that I exist and He does not. The root of all selfishness and evil lie in the sense that reality is separate from G-d.
In the Tanya , Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi posits that every thought, word and action of a human being boils down to one issue: is it in tune with the truth of reality or estranged from it? Every thought can proclaim that the only thing that exists is G-d, or it can indicate that you think there are other things that exist besides Him. Every word either expresses this idea that the only thing that exists is G-d, and we are an extension of His holiness, or the idea that you think there are other things in existence. So too for actions you take. Every decision you make is either proclaiming the exclusive existence of G-d, or you are saying – G-d, You are great and all, but this part of my life and this thing in my life is detached from You. In this space, You don’t exist.
This is the foundational idea of all Kabala and Hasidism: If G-d does not amount to everything, He amounts to nothing.
The purpose of creation, Kabala teaches, was not only that people live moral lives. The goal of creation is rather articulated in the words of the Midrash , “G-d desired a dwelling in the lower realms.” G-d desired to reside within the consciousness of each and every one of us. For this we must transcend our innate self-centeredness and acquire a G-d-centered consciousness. We must learn to internalize the truth that the human “I” is merely an extension of the Divine I. When Moshiach will come, this consciousness will pervade civilization. Our goal is to lead the world to that state of consciousness.
Yet the transition from the self-oriented model of Judaism to the self-transcendent model of Judaism was a protracted process, both in the microcosm, i.e. in each individual’s little world, and even more so in the macrocosm of the world at large. Simply put, it takes time to grow up.
THE TRADITIONAL MODEL OF EDUCATION
This process can be better understood by looking at the traditional Jewish model for educating young children. Maimonides, who first codified the full range of Jewish law, offers a concrete plan for effective child rearing . In brief, he says that since a child is inherently a self-centered being, too immature to appreciate higher motives, it is necessary to use reward and punishment as a motivational impetus. Only as the child matures can one slowly teach him about serving G-d out of love and awe, the ultimate stage of growth being a love so intense that one’s entire consciousness and awareness is consumed by, and with, G-d. Such a person, states Maimonides, serves without any consideration for self, without any desire for remuneration, “he does the truth because it is the truth.” It takes a great deal of maturity for an individual to make this transition.
So too, it takes a great deal of maturity on the national level. In fact, Maimonides writes explicitly  that not every person can achieve this level. In order for such a degree of selfless devotion to become available to the masses, we had to go through a great deal of growing pains. Only after our Creator decided we were ready to use them properly, did G-d see fit to release the secrets of Kabala and Hassidism, to help people learn how to see their very I and the I of existence as a continuum of the Divine I.
The reason that destiny made this literature available to progressively larger audiences is because these same audiences are ready to transcend their petty self-centered lives, and become “dwellings” for G-d. This is the true significance of the statement in the Zohar that in the time immediately prior to the coming of Moshiach, “even little children will know these teachings.” If even little children, in our times, are able to experience G-d centered consciousness, obviously, we have to reconsider the traditional approach to education.
(To Be Continued)
footnote #1 – Sicha, Selichos 5734
footnote #2 – Likkutei Sichos vol.1, p. 151
footnote #3 – Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmuna, ch. 1-3
footnote #4 – Tanya, ch. 20
footnote #5 – ch. 23, 24
footnote #6 – Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16
footnote #7 – Commentary on Mishna, introduction to Sanhedrin ch.10. Also, Mishne Torah, Hilchos Teshuva 10:5
footnote #8 – ibid 10:2
Rabbi Zvi Homnick, a renowned lecturer and educator, resides in New York. He was instrumental in creating the first youth-center for at-risk youth in the Orthodox community. He currently serves as an educational consultant to various learning institutions, and also offers private counseling. Rabbi Homnick can be reached at Rabbizvi@aol.com