Acharei Mot

Self-esteem vs. self awareness

Thoughts on parashat Acharei Mot

Menachem Mirski

After the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, God instructs Moses regarding the atoning sacrifices to be offered by the kohanim on Yom Kippur:

God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. […] And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. (Leviticus 16:2-6)

What did this expiation look like? Our Sages teach us that it was done through verbal confession of sins:

And the priest places his two hands on the bull and confesses. And this is what he would say in his confession: Please, God, I have sinned, I have done wrong, and I have rebelled before You, I and my family. (Mishna Yoma 3:8)

The Hebrew word for confession, vidui, comes from the verb lehitvadot – to confess – which is in Hebrew a reflexive verb (as, generally speaking, all the verbs of the binyan hitpael). Therefore, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, the confession ordained by the Torah does not consist of a confession of sins made to another person; furthermore, it is not even a confession made to God, but as its grammatical reflexive form implies, it is confession in which sinner makes himself aware of his sin:

We should not conceal our past misdemeanors from ourselves but regard them with an unprejudiced eye, without extenuation. We should admit to ourselves that not only should we have acted differently but that it was in our power to have acted differently. By doing this we admit and proclaim our freedom of choice, and when we utter the formula “I have sinned” in all sincerity, we include the idea “I shall not repeat the offence”. (Hirsh on Leviticus 16:4)

Thus, the essence of the confession experience is self-awareness. But self-awareness is also an essential part of all our interpersonal interactions. And here we touch on a significant problem. In the last few decades, starting from the 1970s with Generation X through Generation Y and Z, there has been a real flood of narcissistic and self-centered attitudes, among both men and women. The psychological core of this phenomenon is, in my opinion, low self-awareness regarding certain traits of one’s own character. All of this has its origins in upbringing and has been largely caused by the psychological and socio-cultural concepts openly promoted in the Western culture, such as the concept of self-esteem or other concepts of self-acceptance. These concepts, very often expressed in the form of slogans, like “love yourself”, “everybody is special” etc. seem to be forms of positive, corrective reactions to common, negative socio-cultural practices, to something I would call “the culture of constant degrading and humiliating each other” (someone who grew up in the Polish provinces in the 1980s and 1990s knows what I’m talking about), still present until today in some areas of the Western World. This new (in those days) philosophy of upbringing has definitely had a positive impact on our life, freeing individuals from malice and resentment coming from the social environment. But these doctrines also generate side effects that are profoundly damaging to us, both psychologically and socially. Slogans and concepts of that kind should be applied only to the spheres of human identity – religious, national or sexual. Nobody should be entitled to tell you what you should believe in or to what social group you should belong. However, if we apply these kinds of philosophies to other areas of life, like those pertaining to character or moral issues, they can, and usually do, a lot of damage.

Let’s focus on the self-esteem concept for a moment. It basically teaches you to regard yourself with esteem, no matter what you do or who you are, because it builds your confidence and you need confidence to succeed in your life. Fair enough. But if so, why don’t we just call it confidence? Here is the problem: confidence must be earned. We earn confidence by learning, practicing, working, developing our skills etc. If you just focus on building your confidence it’s likely you will become delusional about yourself. With no connection to reality you can score 90-100% in self-esteem tests, then become an unemployed alcoholic and still score 90-100% in these tests. It is so because the whole point of self-esteem is to be proud of yourself even if there is absolutely no reason to be proud of yourself. Self-esteem can be then called ‘unearned confidence’. It equips you for nothing. It won’t help you at school, it won’t help you at work – it will stifle your career and ambitions, and it will certainly wreck havoc on your relationships. Sure, insecurity and self-doubt can also be damaging but at least there is a chance that they may drive you to be better, in whatever field or area. A person with high self-esteem, also known as narcissist, feels good about himself on the basis of nothing.

We all know self-centered, egotistic people who talk all the time only about themselves. Obviously it’s not a binary issue, we can say that everyone is more or less self-centered. But there are extreme examples in this matter and that’s what I’m focusing on here. Self-centered and narcissistic people often impress others with their life stories, achievements etc. But it is all temporary because that kind of psychological constitution causes many problems. Highly self-centered people constantly overlook or ignore the needs of others. In some cases they don’t even leave other people room to express themselves. By being blind other people’s needs and feelings they inflict emotional harm on them. People like that often have no ability to listen and are more likely to be dismissive of other people’s ideas and thoughts. All of that tremendously affects their connections with other people, particularly the matters of love and friendship, making them incapable of being in long-term love relationships.

On top of that highly self-centered people often have a tendency to overlook their flaws and sins. But being self-centered or narcissistic doesn’t make you by definition a bad person. It’s often difficult to qualify their behavior morally, as something bad or morally questionable. Highly narcissistic or egocentric people may be morally ok and may be right in their moral judgments about themselves: “I don’t steal, I don’t lie, I have never tried to seduce a married person… So what’s the problem?” Therefore, we often don’t have moral tools to judge them or to inspire them to change their behavior. The only remedy for this is self-awareness, which often takes years to develop. But this is where our tradition can be of great help for us: it constantly makes us more social, more sensitive to the needs of others and it contains a lot of wisdom in this matter.

 Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.


Acharei Mot

Samoocena a samoświadomość

Refleksja nad paraszą Acharei Mot

Menachem Mirski 

Po śmierci dwóch synów Aarona, Nadaba i Abihu, Bóg poucza Mojżesza o ofiarach przebłagalnych, które miały być składane przez kohanim w Jom Kippur:

Wiekuisty powiedział do Mojżesza: «Powiedz Aaronowi, swojemu bratu, żeby nie w każdym czasie wchodził do Miejsca Najświętszego poza zasłonę, przed przebłagalnię, która jest na arce, aby nie umarł, kiedy będę się ukazywać w obłoku nad przebłagalnią. Oto jak Aaron będzie wchodzić do Miejsca Najświętszego: weźmie młodego cielca na ofiarę przebłagalną i barana na ofiarę całopalną. Od społeczności Izraelitów weźmie dwa kozły na ofiarę przebłagalną i jednego barana na ofiarę całopalną. Potem Aaron przyprowadzi cielca na ofiarę przebłagalną za siebie samego i dokona przebłagania za siebie i za swój dom. (Kpł 16:2-6)

Jak wyglądało owo przebłaganie, owa ekspiacja? Nasi Mędrcy uczą nas, że dokonywano jej  poprzez ustne wyznanie grzechów:

Kapłan kładzie obie ręce na byku i spowiada się. I oto, co mówi w swoim wyznaniu: Proszę cię Boże [i wyznaję że] zgrzeszyłem, popełniłem nieprawość oraz czyniłem źle przed obliczem Twoim, [zarówno] ja, jak i [osoby z mojego] domostwa. (Miszna Joma 3:8)

Hebrajskie słowo oznaczające spowiedź, vidui, pochodzi od czasownika lehitvadot – wyznać – który jest w języku hebrajskim czasownikiem zwrotnym (podobnie jak zasadniczo wszystkie czasowniki z binjanu hitpael). W związku z powyższym, zdaniem rabina Samsona Rafaela Hirsza, spowiedź nakazana przez Torę nie polega na wyznaniu grzechów drugiej osobie; więcej, nie chodzi tu nawet o wyznanie grzechów przed samym Bogiem, ale, jak sugeruje owa refleksyjna forma gramatyczna, spowiedź nakazana przez Torę to spowiedź, w której grzesznik uświadamia sobie grzech przed samym sobą:

Nie powinniśmy ukrywać przed sobą naszych przeszłych wykroczeń, lecz patrzeć na nie nieuprzedzonym okiem, bez zamiaru ich łagodzenia. Powinniśmy przed samym sobą przyznać, że nie tylko powinniśmy byli postąpić inaczej, ale również, że było w naszej mocy postąpić inaczej. Czyniąc to, wyznajemy i konstatujemy naszą wolność wyboru, a tym samym kiedy wypowiadamy z całą szczerością formułę „zgrzeszyłem”, zawieramy w niej [także] ideę „nie powtórzę [owego] przestępstwa”. (Komentarz Hirsza odnośnie Kpł 16:4)

Istotą doświadczenia spowiedzi jest zatem samoświadomość. Ale samoświadomość jest również istotną częścią wszystkich naszych interakcji międzyludzkich. I tu dotykamy istotnego problemu. W ostatnich kilku dekadach, począwszy od pokolenia X, poprzez pokolenie Y oraz Z, mamy do czynienia z prawdziwym wysypem postaw narcystycznych i egocentrycznych, zarówno wśród mężczyzn, jak i kobiet. Psychologicznym rdzeniem tego zjawiska jest, w mojej opinii, niska samoświadomość w odniesieniu do pewnych cech własnego charakteru. Wszystko to ma swoje korzenie w wychowaniu i jest w dużej mierze spowodowane przez psychologiczne i społeczno-kulturowe koncepcje otwarcie promowane w kulturze zachodniej, takie jak koncepcje samooceny czy inne koncepcje samoakceptacji. Koncepcje te, bardzo często wyrażane w formie haseł, takich jak „kochaj samego siebie”, „każdy jest wyjątkowy” itp., wydają się być formami pozytywnych, korygujących reakcji na powszechne, negatywne praktyki społeczno-kulturowe, które nazwałbym „kulturą nieustannego gnojenia i poniżania się nawzajem”, które są wciąż obecne do w niektórych rejonach naszego kręgu kulturowego (ktoś, kto wychował się na polskiej prowincji w latach 80 i 90 przypuszczalnie wie, o czym mówię). Owszem, ta nowa (w tamtych czasach) filozofia wychowania zdecydowanie pozytywnie wpłynęła na nasze życie, uwalniając jednostki od złośliwości i resentymentów pochodzących ze społecznego otoczenia. Ale tego rodzaju doktryny generują również skutki uboczne, które są dla nas głęboko szkodliwe, zarówno pod względem psychologicznym, jak i społecznym. Tego rodzaju koncepcje i hasła należy stosować tylko w sferach ludzkiej tożsamości – religijnej, narodowej czy seksualnej. Nikt nie powinien mieć prawa mówić ci, w co powinieneś wierzyć lub do jakiej grupy społecznej powinieneś należeć. Jeśli natomiast stosujemy tego rodzaju filozofię w innych dziedzinach naszego społecznego życia, a w szczególności w kwestiach moralnych lub dotyczących ludzkiego charakteru, tego rodzaju frazesy mogą wyrządzić – i zwykle wyrządzają – wiele szkód.

Skupmy się przez chwilę na koncepcjach poczucia własnej wartości. Z grubsza rzecz biorąc  doradzają one nam poważać i doceniać samych siebie, bez względu na to, co robimy i kim jesteśmy, ponieważ to buduje naszą pewność siebie, bowiem potrzebujemy owej pewności, aby odnieść w życiu sukces. W porządku, dlaczego jednak skoncentrujemy się po prostu na pewności siebie? Rzecz w tym, że na ową pewność siebie trzeba sobie zapracować. Zdobywamy pewność siebie ucząc się, ćwicząc, pracując, rozwijając nasze umiejętności itp. Jeśli skupisz się wyłącznie na rozwijaniu pewności siebie, może ostatecznie skończyć z wieloma urojeniami na swój temat. Nie dbając o to kim rzeczywiście jesteś, możesz uzyskać wspaniałe 90-100% wyniki w testach samooceny, zostać bezrobotnym alkoholikiem i nadal uzyskiwać 90-100% w tych testach. Dzieje się tak, ponieważ celem ostatecznym filozofii poczucia własnej wartości jest bycie z siebie dumnym, nawet jeśli nie ma ku temu absolutnie żadnego powodu. Sztucznie stymulowane poczucie własnej wartości można nazwać „niezasłużoną pewnością siebie”. Nic ci to ostatecznie nie daje,  nie pomoże ci w szkole, nie pomoże ci w pracy, ostatecznie zdusi twoją karierę i ambicje, i z pewnością zrujnuje twoje relacje z innymi ludźmi, w szczególności zaś relacje miłosne. Oczywiście, niepewność, brak wiary i zwątpienie w samego siebie mogą być również szkodliwe; te jednakże przynajmniej mogą cię zmotywować, by stać się kimś lepszym, w jakiejkolwiek dziedzinie. Osoba o wysokiej samoocenie, określana również mianem narcyza, czuje się ze sobą dobrze na podstawie absolutnie niczego.

Przypuszczalnie każdy z nas spotkał na swojej drodze egocentrycznych, narcystycznych ludzi, którzy bez przerwy mówią tylko o sobie. Oczywiście nie jest to kwestia binarna, i można powiedzieć, że każdy człowiek jest w mniejszym lub większym stopniu egocentryczny. Mamy jednak w tej materii przykłady ekstremalne i na tym się tutaj skupiam. Egocentryczni i narcystyczni ludzie często imponują innym swoim życiorysem, osiągnięciami itp. Ale to wszystko jest tymczasowe, ponieważ tego rodzaju psychologiczna konstytucja powoduje wiele problemów. Osoby wysoce egocentryczne nieustannie przeoczają lub ignorują potrzeby innych ludzi. W niektórych, skrajnych przypadkach nie pozostawiają nawet innym miejsca na wyrażenie samych siebie. Będąc ślepym na potrzeby i uczucia innych ludzi wyrządzają im krzywdę emocjonalną. Osoby wysoko egocentryczne zwykle nie potrafią słuchać innych ludzi i w rezultacie lekceważą ich pomysły i idee. Wszystko to ogromnie wpływa na ich relacje z innymi, szczególnie na ich relacje miłosne, co często czyni ich niezdolnymi do pozostania w długotrwałych związkach.

Co więcej, ludzie wysoko egocentryczni mają często tendencję do przeoczenia swoich wad i grzechów. Jednakże bycie egocentrycznym lub narcystycznym nie czyni cię z definicji złym człowiekiem. Bardzo często trudno jest zakwalifikować moralnie tego rodzaju zachowania jako złe lub choćby moralnie wątpliwe. Osoba wysoko narcystyczna może być moralnie w porządku i może mieć rację w moralnej ocenie samej siebie: „Nie kradnę, nie kłamię, nigdy nie próbowałem uwieść kogoś zamężnego/żonatego… Więc w czym problem?”. Dlatego często nie mamy narzędzi moralnych, aby ich osądzać lub inspirować do zmiany zachowania. Jedynym na to lekarstwem jest samoświadomość, którą się często rozwija latami. Ale tutaj nasza tradycja może nam bardzo pomóc: nieustannie czyni nas ona bardziej ludźmi społecznymi, bardziej wrażliwymi na potrzeby innych i zawiera w sobie bardzo wiele mądrości odnośnie wszystkich tych kwestii.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Acharei Mot

Purifying the Realm of Order

Thoughts on Parashat Acharei Mot

Menachem Mirski

Human beings dominated the world initially not by their physical power but by the power of intellect. The physical dominion came long after, with the beginning of the modern, industrial era. Over the centuries of this development we have gained more and more control over the natural environment and other living beings. By the forces of our intellect we won the survival battle with other creatures. It seems that we are naturally inclined to have and enjoy control over the world or at least over our close surroundings. It is primarily our intellect through which we gain this control. Achieving it we find peace, stability and we are able to let our internal attributes grow.

In this week’s Torah portion we find a rather peculiar sacrifice practice. Besides all the practices of sacrifices to God, which are widely discussed in the book of Leviticus, Moses instructs Aaron to sacrifice a goat to a mysterious Azazel. Azazel is a fallen angel appearing in both Hebrew and Muslim mythology. During the Second Temple period he appears as a fallen angel responsible for introducing humans to forbidden knowledge. His figure appears later in the apocrypha, Talmud and Zohar, but we will not get into details about him today. I will just state that both, the figure and the ancient ritual was a trouble for the normative Jewish monotheism and we can express this problem in one question: what was indeed the purpose of making sacrifices to a demonic being and appeasing it if the only ruler of this world is a jealous God who had no mercy for the Israelites performing sacrifices to any beings or deities besides Him?

The answer to this question I will propose today is as follows: both kinds of sacrifices, to God and to Azazel, were made to bring back the divine world order. This biblical, divine world order has its center and its periphery. The center of this order was Mishkan (and later the Temple,) but above all, the Ark of the Covenant. The further we go from this divine order center the more forces of chaos we encounter and the more we are exposed to random, unpredictable and – by definition – bad events.  Wilderness, to which Aaron was commanded to send the goat for Azazel, is a place which is dominated by the forces of chaos. This place should either be avoided, appeased or conquered completely – controlled and ultimately turned into a place of order. Here we deal only with avoidance and some sort of symbolic appeasement, but primarily with avoidance/separation – all the sins of Israel were put on the goat’s head:

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:21-22)

All the sins, iniquities and transgressions belong to the realm of chaos and, in fact, are caused by the forces of chaos and thus it is clear that they should be sent back to the place from which they initially came. By doing this we expel these forces from the realm of divine order, we purify this realm and restore its complete order.  This renewed separation of order and chaos was necessary because it was chaos – the lack of proper procedures – that caused the accident in which the sons of Aaron were killed, which is mentioned in our previous Torah portion.


This divine order exists eternally thus also today. It extends to all ontological realms of the world we experience: the natural realm (described by physics, chemistry and biology,) the societal realm (the sphere of human interaction) as well as to the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm can be divided into the psychological realm and the realm of ‘objective spirit,’ which contains all the expressions of human spirit: art, literature, philosophy, religion etc. We don’t have to worry too much about the divine order in the realm of nature: it is given, stable and it follows the laws of nature that we have discovered throughout history and are still discovering. The only thing we may be worried about regarding the divine order in nature is our impact, an impact that can destabilize the natural processes and can lead us to bad consequences. It is not possible for us to change the laws of nature, but nature can “punish” us if our interactions with it lead to a conflict. By nature here I don’t necessarily mean planet earth, i.e. climate. It can be equally applied to a situation in which we destabilize natural, biological processes in our bodies which can make us infertile.

What we have to worry about the most is the divine order in the other two realms: the societal realm and the spiritual realm, because we are those  directly responsible for maintaining this order in these spheres. This means that we have to maintain the rule of law, balance and harmony inside those realms. Because they are actually inseparable in practice, to live a good and healthy life we have to keep all the orders of those realms “in consistency” – integrated with each other. Our spiritual order and balance has to be integrated with the order of society, and both of them have to be integrated with the order of nature. It does not mean that we must always succumb to the dictates of nature or society. No. Our spiritual powers and concepts of societal orders and regulations can, and sometimes should, challenge established orders of society and nature – that’s the way progress works. But keeping unwise and long term inconsistency between the orders of any of these spheres, without any goal or real perspective of change, can be devastating for humans and our societies.

It is relevant to mention here Mordechai Kaplan’s concept of salvation. For Kaplan, salvation has both a personal and a social aspect, both of them are of equal significance and cannot fully exist without each other. Salvation, in its personal aspect, represents the faith in the possibility of achieving an integrated personality. To have an integrated personality means that all our natural impulses, appetites and desires which are so often in conflict are harmonized. As Kaplan says, “they must never be permitted to issue in a stalemate, in such mutual inhibition as leaves life empty and meaningless, without zest and savor. Nor must they be permitted to issue in distraction, in a condition in which our personality is so pulled apart by conflicting desires that the man we are in certain moments or certain relations looks with contempt and disgust at the man we are in others.” As long as this is the case, we haven’t achieved personal salvation. Biblical narratives abound in stories in which the characters experience that kind of internal struggle, a struggle that often affects their human environment.

According to Kaplan’s concept, salvation also has its social aspect. Selfish salvation is something impossible to achieve because no human being is psychologically self-sufficient. There can be no personal salvation as long as injustice exists in the social order; there can be no social salvation as long as the greed and lust for dominion suppress people’s desire to be in human society in which values like love, respect and compassion are respected. God has a special place here: “To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief,” as Kaplan continues, “God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God. In this sense it is true that the real salvation is of the world to come, for it hasn’t been attained so far.”

The Israelites, our ancient ancestors, saw the world, like many other ancient peoples, primarily as the battle between good and bad forces in the world. Over time, and this is our Jewish original invention, this concept lost its symmetry and the two powers that rule the world ceased to be equal ontologically – at this moment we became monotheists. But many of our ancient stories can be seen as objectifications of internal, spiritual phenomena. Stories about Azazel or the Ark of the Covenant can be understood as a story of our ancestors’ internal fight for establishing a new world order where justice, love, respect and peace are supreme values. This fight is not over yet; it is our inheritance to continue the fight for these values until we reach the world to come.  

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA