The Myth of Self-Actualization

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

16 comments on “The Myth of Self-Actualization

  1. Interesting stuff .

    I have found settling in difficult in the frum community……frum from habit / birth….been to Yeshiva….adept at learning a Daf….talks during the repetition of the Amida….during Kaddish. Don’t they know better ?

    We all got our problems…our own unique lessons to learn at the place inside where we cannot hide from ourselves…..I have felt like an Ivri within the B’nei Yisrael….but…we are sheep waiting for a shepherd….so I gotta look inside and forgive myself…and forgive the talkers…and the ones with the “opinions”….and I must love them….there is no alternative worth contemplating.

    I got a book recently about the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov….in it someone asks the Rav…” What should I meditate on….in my mind…which technique should I employ during davening ?”…….” G-d” was the answer ….why make things complicated for yourselves.

    Be happy that we have fulfilled a mitzvah…simply without all the chumras playing with your mind….and speak to Hash-m everyday as described above.

    What is the point of all of it….if we do not grow inside spiritually….at the place where you cannot hide from yourself. We are all connected….this is where we must find ourselves. ( In my humble opinion )

  2. Rabbi Goldson,
    One of the points I tried to make was that if we truly appreciate how
    lucky we are to be baalei tshuvah, we would expect our FFB brethren to
    have certain challanges in appreciating fully how fortunate their lot
    is. Once our expectations are realistic we do not have any reason for
    frustration. Also we have greater admiration of FFBs which developed a
    proper appreciation for Torah lifestyle without experiencing its
    lacking.
    On the other point I had probably misunderstood you. I thought you had
    defined ‘making it’, in part, as becoming an insider in the Frum
    community, which is certainly very attractive from social and emotional
    points but is not true measure of accomplishment.

    Alex, it is good see your posts as well. I hope everything is well with
    your family and will see you in Chicago soon.

    YD, I need a little more time to study your comments

  3. Max (comment #6)(and Rabbi)-

    Whew, my head is spinning from metaphor overload. Reading this post and the subsequent comments I feel like Alice in Mosholand. Nevertheless since many (IMO flawed) conclusions will be drawn from these metaphors I’ll address my arguments to the metaphors first to illustrate how an imprecise Moshol (parable/metaphor) may lead to an incorrect Mussar Haskel (moral of the story).

    Rags to Riches-

    Based on a perception of Torah and Mitzvahs being spiritual riches you describe the T’shuva process as a kind of “rags –to-riches” story. It follows that we can recast FFBs as “old money” and BTs as the “nouveau riche” (see http://www.bartleby.com/59/4/nouveauriche.html). As such both you and the Rabbi share the frustration (maybe disgust?) of the self-made millionaire when scrutinizing the lifestyle of the spoiled born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-their-mouths squanderer of the family fortune. IMHuO those same squanderers share your model and it is just this type of thinking that leads to the problems that you perceive in the first place.

    The saw goes “You can never be too thin or too rich”. Both parts of this maxim are demonstrably false. Not just because an excess of thin-ness is AKA anorexia and an excess of riches leads to erosion of privacy and an overexposure to paparazzi, kidnappers and/or fundraisers; but because there reaches a point when ones assets so far outstrip ones need for both necessities and luxuries that any further assets, and any exertion to acquire them, become utterly superfluous. (David Gates is TOO rich. He is now busy with giving away that portion of his riches that he cannot possibly use in ten lifetimes.) Because most FFBs either intellectually or at least on a gut level also perceive Torah and Mitzvahs to be spiritual “riches” there comes a point at which they say “No need to be greedy. I’ve got more than enough, thank you” and they begin resting on their laurels. Elsewhere in this blogsite this phenomenon has been called plateauing.

    You wishfully think, “I wish that my children will have some of ‘baal tshuva’ perspective, despite being reared as FFBs.” Sorry, but IMHO as long as you project the value system of “Torah =spiritual riches” and as long as the prevailing FFB culture reinforces it, the chances of your kids adopting a BT perspective are slim. In terms of how they relate to inherited wealth it makes very little difference to those who are “to the manor born” if their family fortune is one or twenty generations old. (Especially in the case of BTs whose family “money” is really only a few skipped generations “younger” than that of their FFB compatriots).

    The true model for spiritual progress is not illustrated by the progression from poverty to wealth but by the maturation from childhood to adulthood. The rich man consumes more than the poor man because he can but the adult consumes more than the child because he must! Torah is neither a necessity nor a luxury. Torah is life itself. Ruchniyus is not about having and getting but about being and becoming. The more Torah and Mitzvahs I learn/do the more alive I am. The joy and the wonder of someone with the will to live who has just been saved from a burning house or a cresting flood cannot be measured in terms of necessary or luxurious POSSESSIONS. I don’t possess my life… I live it! But unlike the physical aspects of our lives wherein life or death is an all or nothing proposition and progress comes with a built in glass ceiling called the prime or peak (beyond which one cannot progress and after which one begins an inexorable descent) the spiritual aspect of our lives= Torah and Mitzvahs is an infinite piecemeal progression where one can go on birthing/saving from oblivion, new “pieces” of their lives till they draw their last breaths. That never gets old, stale or boring. No matter how many times one has had a brush with death one’s newfound, saved, life fills them with an ineffable joy and wonder. Talk about self-actualization! (For a fuller and more eloquent treatment of this paradigm shift in it’s original source please see the sefer-Pachad Yitzchak- Shavuos: Ma’amar 4.)

    If we could readjust and shift OJ society’s attitude towards THIS model for growth in ruchniyus we would see a sea change in that society. FFB’s would stop plateuing at ever-younger ages and glibly perceiving BTs as nouveau riche (e.g. “So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.”) and BT’s could have renewed realistic hopes of their kids sharing their sense of joy, awe and wonder. Why? Because everyone would share the lifelong passion and joy that comes with being and becoming.

    Yisro as a spiritual trailblazer

    You wrote: “Yisro proposed to Moshe to teach Moshe’s children all kinds of Avoda Zorah so that they could properly appreciate the beauty of service to G-d. Was his idea totally without merit. Of course not, it was a great idea, only poverty can give the true appreciation of wealth. There was only one problem, a major problem, it was too risky, and we don’t take risks with spirituality.”

    In my previous comment I think that I thoroughly debunked the axiom that “only poverty can give the true appreciation of wealth” but I do agree that his idea was not totally without merit. However IMO it is universally rejected as a path to spiritual growth today not because it is risky but because it is counterproductive and dated.

    A) There have been many courageous spiritual risk-takers in Jewish History and as is the case in finances one must consider their risk-tolerance before embarking on any investment. There’ve been winners (King David, the Kotsker Rebbe) and losers (Elisha ben Avuya). But even if this ruchniyos-dika investment could be FDIC insured- if an angel were to make a BT parent the following offer “Let your secular parents raise their grandchild (your child) and I guarantee the child’s adopting of observance at the same age you did” would he find any takers? See Rabbi Goldson’s previous (1.6.06) post of Carrying My Children on My Shoulders and I think that you and he would both agree that the answer is a resounding NO. Even using your rags-to-riches model no self-made entrepreneur would return his children to the inner-city ghetto whence he came just because he is proud of his own achievements and most familiar with that method of wealth acquisition. Hence counterproductive.
    B) The Chidushei HoRim comments that Yisro’s method was admirable pre- Matan Torah but after Matan-Torah the truth has been revealed to the Jewish people. My take on this “Rim” is as follows: When asked to discover the value of x in the equation 2 x =4 Someone unschooled in algebra might begin at 5000 and in descending order plug in every number into x until finally, 4998 exhausting attempts at solution later, they discover that x =2. But someone savvy to the solving quadratic equations has a quick and easy technique for immediately identifying the true value of x. Hence it is an outdated idea.

    Rabbi Goldson; can you make out the mark on my forehead???

  4. Elisheva (and Rafael):

    The ideal that you suggest — that our awareness of G-d so permeates our lives that we don’t need to acknowledge Him — is a beautiful thought. However…

    If your friend never calls, if your parent never has time for you, if your child never says “thank you,” if your spouse never says, “I love you,” will you be comforted in the knowledge that they take you for granted?

    The midrash illustrates this point as follows: a boy riding on his father’s shoulders, after asking his father repeatedly to give him this shiny rock or that pretty flower, becomes so accustomed to being carried that forgets where he is and asks a passerby, “Have you seen my father?”

    Disappointed by his son’s ingratitude, that father sets him back on the ground, where a wild dog threatens to bite him, in order to remind the boy how much he depends on his father.

    Our natural inclination toward forgetfulness and complacancy requires us to bring G-d into our lives at every opportunity. The routine of davening and learning and Shabbos and Yom Tov integrate G-d into the cycle of our lives, but they also make it easier to omit Him from the many moments in between.

    If I’m not mistaken, it’s the Rambam who says that speaking to G-d in the course of each day as one speaks to a friend or a loved one is the highest form of prayer, for doing so drives home to us that our relationship with the Almighty is not restricted to certain places or seasons or times of day, but is constant and never-ending.

    Rafael —

    Seek out G-d everywhere at every time. Recognize Him in the wonders of nature, in seeming “coincidences,” in events that appeared bad but turned out for the good and, yes, in those that appeared good but turned out bad. Start discussions about His presence in our lives and, if people aren’t responsive, keep trying, or try other people.

    I believe it was the Kotzker Rebbe who asked his student, “Where do we find G-d?” After several attempted answers, the Rebbe answered his own question: “We find G-d wherever we let Him in.”

  5. I’d say Rafael just about read my mind since I completely share his sentiment (and, like him, I’ve also been a baal teshuva for almost 15 years).

    I must add that what makes the issue of G-d’s presence even more complicated is that (1) on one hand when troubles befall a person, the Talmud says that we should examine our deeds and do teshuva, (2)yet on the other hand, in general, we must not read into signs (i.e. if this happened, it must be a message to me to do this …), since we are supposed to “walk wholeheartedly with Hashem,” (3) while on the other hand yet, it seems imperative that G-d makes His presence felt in our lives, albeit from behind the mask of galus and tevah and that we should feel and relate to the Siatta Dishmaya that He gives and to “listen to your messages,” at least in retrospect.

    So, I personally, have found it tricky to navigate this particular terrain – which is okay, because Judaism sets bounds and parameters not only when it comes to defining correct actions (i.e. halacha), but when it comes to defining correct set of ideals (i.e. hashkafa) as well. Sorting through, analyzing, understanding and internalizing those parameters and integrating the various approaches taken by the authorities on these issues is what sometimes takes a long time and effort. My past success in gaining relative clarity in other difficult hashkafic questions, gives me reason to hope that I will gain clarity in this topic as well. In fact, you can help by giving your feedback on this.

  6. In response to Rafael, I concede that he has a rather valid point; we don’t always acknowledge his place and presence in our lives the way we should. Although, on some level, we take G-d for granted as part of our lives. We don’t discuss Him that often because it seems almost to be implied. If G-d is supposed to permeate our very existance, then perhaps we dont discuss Him so much the same way that we don’t discuss the daily things we take for granted. There is, it seems to me, a basic assumption that He is there and maybe this is because most of the orthodox community has never experienced an obvious lack of G-d’s presence. In that respect, you may be luckier since you can appreciate him more. I don’t think it’s fair, however, to say that that the community sometimes seems as if it could function without G-d.
    (Just a note, I’m not exactly FFB, but my parents are BTs who took on the majority of Orthodox Judaism by the time I was four.)

  7. Thank you for this post. I have been disturbed by this issue for many years. After becoming a baal tshuva almost 15 years ago, I have been at various times very frustrated with the Orthodox community. My major frustration is, quite frankly, the absence of much discussion about G-d. The modern Orthodox community with which I’ve been affiliated is almost all about halacha at best and more often about community. Sometimes I daresay I envy my two religious Christian friends, who discuss G-d more both in synagogue and among themselves.

    Please note: by discussing G-d I DON’T mean philosophical inquiries as to his nature or whether he exists, but rather discussing His place and His presence in the lives of Jewish believers. I sometimes get the feeling that the Jewish system could run even if G-d wasn’t involved in it–which shouldn’t be the case. For me, no matter how “meaningful” or “community oriented” or “beautiful” Judaism is, it does not mean that much without G-d as its center.

    OK, well, I’d welcome comments. Thanks for making me think!

  8. Max, how are you!!! It’s good to see you post your comments here, long time no talk, though on this one I would have to agree with Rabbi Goldson in that there is no real disagreement in his post with the point you had made. Reread his post more carefully (and the subsequent clarification as well). Send my regards to Gene and Elvira, please!

  9. Mark:

    The ba’alei mussar all say that in our times we can only give tochacha (rebuke) indirectly by setting an example. Your point about reaching out to the wider community is, of course, correct. The danger of cynicism is that we begin to resent those around us and thereby become incapable of reaching out to them.

    I’m speaking primarily to myself, since I’m guilty of this far too often.

  10. Gershon: Call me. I know I can trust an old chavrusa with my secrets.

    Avraham: I merely meant to illustrate the theoretical dilemma of being the only sane person in an insane world. Rebbe Nachman of Breslav has a parable concerning this, which I’ll save for another time.

    Max: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m not quite sure, however, where we disagree.

    I wrote “ba’alei tshuva who have ‘made it,'” placing the last words in quotation marks since, obviously, no one ever completely “makes it” in this world — we all remain works in progress until our last moments on earth.

    My point was that even when a ba’al tshuva reaches the point where he has lost his self-consciousness about his past, he may continue to feel out of place for exactly the reasons you articulate: his level of appreciation to HaShem for saving him from a purely secular existence leaves him bewildered that those who had the advantages he did not don’t value them more.

    We learn that what bothers us in others is in some way a reflection of our own shortcomings. Although in many cases this is self-evident, at other times it can be difficult to understand. To use a tragic example currently in the news, we all feel violent revulsion for adults who abuse or molest children. Does that mean we all possess a subconscious inclination toward child abuse?

    I would suggest that (well, in fact I heard this from my rebbe, shlita) what bothers us is the lack of respect and regard for values that we hold dear. The frustration I personally feel with people who casually come late and schmooze through davening is not because I am a closet schmoozer, but because I feel that the lack of respect for davening negates my own sense of reverence for tefillah.

    This is my answer to your illustration concerning the king’s soldiers. The soldier who hones his service to his monarch to the limits of his ability cannot abide his colleagues who are haphazard in their own service because they implicitly devalue what is so precious to him.

    That is the reality of human psychology. Ultimately, however, you are right — and this was the concluding point of my post. We SHOULD NOT allow ourselves to feel diminished by the shortcomings of those around us, precisely because we ARE doing what we should be doing regardless of the inadequacies of others, and that we can continue to refine our service only if we don’t allow our frustrations to make us cynical.

  11. Dear Rabbi Goldson,

    I actually respectfully disagree with your post. From the point you have asked this question:
    “I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.””
    You have turned the focus of your post onto the difficulty various challenges within immediate community present to Baal Tshuvah and how (s)he should best deal with them. But what does it have to do with “made it”. I am concerned that you are giving the community too great of a role in defining the success of the baal tshuvah. I would like to offer a different perspective.

    A person is going about his civillian life when he finds out that all along he has been expected to dedicate his life to the service in King’s army. He decides to answer the calling, learns necessary skills and joins King’s army. Initially he is thrilled by the honor of serving the king, however he realizes that not all the soldiers in his company share the enthusiasm. Perhaps having always served in King’s army they lack the perspective of how dull the civilian life can be. It is a challange, but why should it impact the new soldier’s quality of service. The company’s performance does not change his responsibilities. It is the quality of his personal service which defines his success not the quality of his company.

    Furthermore, we must realize how lucky are we to be returnees to King’s army, Baalei Tshuvah. Unlike FFBs who had the wealth of Torah upbringing from the first day and therefore may have a challenge of properly appreciating it, we are impoverished who turned into millionaires. It is easy for us to appreciate the Torah lifestyle. We should expect the communities we become part to have problems and challenges and we should know that we are meant to be part of solution. Unlike Ron, in the previous post, I wish that my children will have some of ‘baal tshuva’ perspective, despite being reared as FFBs.

    The Medrash tells us that Yisro proposed to Moshe to teach Moshe’s children all kinds of Avoda Zorah so that they could propertly appreciate the beauty of service to G-d. Was his idea totally without merit. Of course not, it was a great idea, only poverty can give the true appreciation of wealth. There was only one problem, a major problem, it was too risky, and we don’t take risks with spirituality. But if Hashem placed us in situation of being impoverished of Torah and then gave us ability to return and reclaim immense wealth waiting for us, we should wake up every morning and say: “Thank you, Hashem for introducing me to Torah as an adult, so I can have a better appreciation for it”

  12. When the immigrant comes to the country, it’s widely accepted that his children have a better chance of assimilation than he. By the same token I wonder if the children of the Baal Tchuva if raised FFB, will experience a greater self actualization as a Jew because of less distraction from their past. Besides that, I agree it’s true that we can hope better to change ourselves than to change others.

  13. I agree 100% that our number one avodah is to fix ourselves. But part of that fixing involves helping others in positive constructive ways.

    When we look to correct from a critical or cynical point of view, we will not be effective and will usually do more damage then good.

    If we can move to the point where we really start to care about others (in thought, speech and action) and their spiritual growth, then I think we can effect positive change in our community. But people have to really feel and see that we do care, so it has to be more than lip service.

    So I would agree that we need to lose the righteous indignation, which we find all too often. And of course we always need to continue working on ourselves. But we also need to focus on true caring and concern for our neighbors and communities – and from this place we can bring about some of the corrections that our communities need.

  14. I greatly enjoyed your post, Rabbi. In fact, I came to that same realization myself as well. Having said that, can you elaborate on what you meant by:

    “loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses”

    I wasn’t sure how the reference to neuroses pertains to the rest of your post.

Comments are closed.