Reprinted from Hamodia

Why Do People Inherently Have Low Self-Esteem?

I found a comment of Rabbi Twerski in a recent interview disturbing. To say that 99.9 percent of people don’t like themselves is outrageous, for the reality and Torah sources directly contradict that.

Your comment that it is “outrageous” is quite correct. It is not 99 percent, it is a hundred percent. People can emerge from this state only by serious work on their character traits. Let us see why this is so.

The Talmud says, “A person’s yetzer hara grows stronger and renews itself every day and seeks to destroy him” (Kiddushin 30). Every person has a yetzer hara — you, me, and the greatest tzaddikim.

What is the yetzer hara? The Torah says, “A person comes into the world as a wild mule” (Iyov 11:12). In other words, we are born with all the character traits, impulses, and desires of a wild animal. We are given a neshamah that enables us, if we put it to work, to transform these traits into kedushah.

Tiferes Yisrael (end of Kiddushin) cites a midrash that a desert king heard about the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu, and sent his artists to the Israelite encampment to draw a picture of Moshe. When they returned, he submitted the portrait to his physiognomists, who could tell a person’s character by looking at his face. They told him that this was a portrait of a man who was vain, selfish, murderous, gluttonous, intolerant, and lustful. This was so contradictory to what he had heard about Moshe Rabbeinu that he decided to see for himself.

When the king met Moshe, he saw that the portrait was accurate to the very last hair. He confronted Moshe with the problem, and Moshe told him that the physiognomists were correct. What they can see in a person’s face are the traits with which one was born. Moshe Rabbeinu explained that what they said about him was true, in that he was born with those loathsome traits. However, using the strengths of his neshamah, he was able to eliminate some of them and transform others into desirable traits, such as lust for Hashem, hatred of evil, intolerance of injustice, etc.

We all have a yetzer hara, with the inborn traits of a “wild mule.” Imagine what work it takes to deal with these. Mesilas Yesharim and Tanya say that we are engaged in a lifelong struggle with the yetzer hara. Tzaddikim, with their unrelenting work, succeed in defeating the yetzer hara.

In a letter to a young man who complained about his difficulty with this struggle, Rav Yitzchok Hutner said, “Do you think the Chafetz Chaim was born a tzaddik? Do you realize the intensity of his struggle and how many times he fell and picked himself up until he became the great tzaddik that he was?” Every night, the Chafetz Chaim would open the aron kodesh and pray tearfully that Hashem should remove his feelings of anger. The Chafetz Chaim never manifested anger, because he was in total control of his behavior, but he could not eliminate his feelings, and he asked Hashem to remove his undesirable feelings.

So, you and I and every other person have this “wild mule” within us. I have not seen too many people cry into the aron kodesh for Hashem to help them eliminate some of these inborn traits. And if you were to tell people that they have these odious traits, they would be deeply insulted. I think that with the exception of our great tzaddikim, who achieved the transformation that Moshe did, most people have this “wild mule” inside of them. True, we don’t behave like wild mules, because we have been disciplined and trained to control our behavior, but as all the sifrei mussar point out, the shoresh of these traits remain with us.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, whose understanding of human nature was profound, says that these feelings remain in our tat-hakarah, our subconscious mind. Because we are generally not aware of them, we cannot transform them, and lurking in the subconscious, they affect our behavior in ways we may not recognize. Not infrequently, they emerge into our awareness, and we quickly banish them into the unconscious. How much self-esteem can one have with any awareness that one has “wild mule” traits? Yet it is only by allowing ourselves to become aware of them and transforming or uprooting them that we can get self-esteem.

So, the yetzer hara, as the Talmud says, regularly seeks to destroy a person and does so by utilizing one’s “wild mule” components to give one a feeling of unworthiness. People deal with this in any number of ways. Rabbeinu Yona says that a baal gaavah is a person who thinks he is superior to other in order to overcome his feelings of lowliness. The person who speaks lashon hara thinks he is a better person by berating others.

The sifrei mussar and chassidus say that the yetzer hara tries to crush a person either by making him a baal gaavah, as Rabbeinu Yonah says, or by making him feel inept. “What’s the use of my trying? I can’t succeed anyway.” Depression, they say, may be the result of gaavah, with the person feeling that he deserves more than he has and is depressed by his feeling of being deprived of what he deserves. The person who seeks to control others, whether it is an abusive spouse or parent, tries to overcome the feeling of lowliness by controlling others, which makes one feel superior.

There should be no need to be a baal gaavah, to speak lashon hara, or to control other people. We are all better people than we think we are, and this is clearly pointed out in the chapter on hakaras atzmo (self-awareness) in volume 1 of Alei Shur by Rav Wolbe.

Yetzer Hara or Disease?

Rabbi Twerski insists that “weaknesses” we used to call listening to our yetzer hara are actually “diseases” that need to be treated by medical doctors instead of our spiritual mentors.

That listening to the yetzer hara is a disease is clearly described by the Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim as cholei nefesh, and is not an invention by psychologists. Ideally, the treatment of cholei nefesh should be done by talmidei chachamim, and gedolim such as Rav Dessler and Rav Wolbe have done so. The writings of the Steipler Gaon are a treatment for cholei nefesh. The Steipler’s manual on OCD is an excellent example: “Nerven is nisht frumkeit.”

There are, of course, some types of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and postpartum depression that are the result of physical-chemical changes within the body that require psychiatric treatment.

Not surprisingly, many referrals to mental health workers are made by rabbanim, who realize that the person’s emotional problems are beyond what they can do for them. Some referrals come from roshei yeshivah and chassidic rebbes.

Not Lying — But for What Reason?

Rabbi Twerski says in his book that he stopped lying not because of Torah but because of psychology. He says that he learned that lying doesn’t work. Where does the Torah prohibition of not lying fit in to his worldview?

I wish that we all observed midvar sheker tirchak not only to avoid lying but also to distance oneself from lying. If one understands “Lo teshakru” (Vayikra 19:11) to mean “You shall not lie,” one may find a reason to justify lying under certain circumstances. When the Kotzker Rebbe was told that someone stole something, he asked, “How can that be? The Torah says, ‘Lo signov,’ which means ‘You cannot steal.’”

Sadly, many people find rationalizations as to why it is permissible to lie under certain circumstances. The ideal understanding of “Lo teshakru” is not “You shall not lie,” but “You cannot lie.” I was privileged to realize that “Lo teshakru means “You cannot lie,” so I stopped justifying lying.

Is Spirituality Dependent on Religion?

In Rabbi Twerski’s book I’d Like to Call for Help, But I Don’t Know the Number, he writes, shockingly, “I do not mean to be harsh with religion because it has so much to offer. Yet I cannot deny that some of the principles of religion may find greater expression in AA” and, “It is my hope to demonstrate that spirituality need not be dependent on religion.” These statements by a rabbi are a chillul Hashem! Furthermore, we have yet to see objective evidence that the Twelve-Step Program, which Rabbi Twerski espouses, is the ultimate solution to our many problems.

The book I’d Like to Call for Help, But I Don’t Know the Number was written for the non-Jewish alcoholic and drug addict. The book Twerski on Spirituality was for Jews.

Yet I must inform you that I have had fine, frum talmidei chachamim and chassidim who were in every way chassidish, some of whom could quote Mesilas Yesharim by heart, who fell into the trap of alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, and Internet addiction. The reason for this is that their learning of mussar was superficial, not as Rav Yisrael Salanter proposed.

What happens to them when they go to AA? First of all, they must recognize that, as the Talmud says, “A person’s yetzer hara grows stronger and renews itself every day and seeks to destroy him, and without the help of Hashem, one cannot overcome it.” One must pray diligently for siyatta deShmaya. Secondly, one must do what Pirkei Avos says, “Make Hashem’s Will your will, and annul your will before His Will” (Avos 2:4).

One must realize that giving in to his own will was what brought him to disaster. Then one must make a regular cheshbon hanefesh and, as Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk says, reveal to a trusted friend every act one has done and even one’s thoughts, because by doing so, one breaks the hold of the yetzer hara. One must, like the Chafetz Chaim, ask Hashem to remove those undesirable traits that one has been unable to eliminate. One must seek forgiveness from anyone one has offended, because even Yom Kippur does not forgive such sins. If one has done wrong, one should promptly admit it and not try to justify one’s mistakes, as the Navi says, “For this I will punish you, for your saying ‘I did not sin’” (Yirmeyahu 2:35). And one must practice these principles in everything one does, as the Talmud says, “The one small verse on which the entire Torah depends is, ‘Know Hashem in all your ways’” (Berachos 63).

This is essentially the AA program, and as one can see, it is straight mussar. Why, then, is AA or OA necessary for addiction? Because whereas we say ki heim chayeinu, we generally do not walk away from a mussar sefer with the thought, “If I deviate from this, I will surely die.” The person addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or food who walks away from a support meeting knows, from bitter experience, “If I deviate from this program, I will surely die.” If one truly and sincerely felt that way about mussar, one would not need AA. But let’s be realistic, not everyone reacts this way.

Religion is wonderful, but religion without proper middos is of little value. Rav Aharon Kotler said, “The Torah was given to menschen. If one is not a mensch, one’s Torah is of little value.” Rav Chaim Vital, the chief disciple of the Arizal, says in Shaar HaKedushah that one must be even more careful about an improper middah than about an aveirah. The baalei mussar explain that as grave as an aveirah is, it does not become a part of one’s personality, whereas a bad middah, such as kaas, becomes part of one’s personality and is much more difficult to uproot.

Unfortunately, some people think that one can be religious even with bad middos. It is possible to hear a statement, “He is a very frum person, but he has a bad temper,” but no one would say, “He is a very frum person, but he likes to eat treif.” In truth, a person who loses his temper is no more than one who eats treif. Indeed, the Talmud equates losing one’s temper with avodah zarah.

If you wish to believe that there are no problems with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or Internet among yeshivah students and frum people, you may do so. We, who see these people frequently, know what the facts are. These destructive habits are tragically rampant in our environment, and our children are not immune to them. It is important that parents and yeshivos provide the education that can help prevent a youngster from falling into these deadly ways.