Back in the day, when I was a young student cantor attending the Hebrew Union College in NYC, I had a wonderful and intense connection with my friend and classmate, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz – Senior Rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. We wrestled with the ideas of Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, and Borowitz; finding meaning in their philosophies and connecting it to ourselves, the actions we made in the world, and our relationships. It was a time of bonding in friendship and deepening consciousness through the learning and teachings in which we were engaged.
One of the teachings, that I remember Rabbi Matt and I particularly loved, was from a part of the Talmud called “Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of the Rabbis.”
“Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the reverence of Heaven should be upon you.” Pirkei Avot 1:3
I remembered we would talk about this verse in the context of greeting people after a Friday night Shabbat service. We believed that if our self esteem was dependent on what people told us, in response to the service, we would be enslaved to external encouragements. Our confidence would be shaken if someone made a negative comment or we would feel proud and accomplished when someone said something positive. The inference we took away was that self esteem and confidence should come from within and we should not be fishing for compliments. Rather, we should serve the Creator and our community unconditionally.
According to Chasidic tradition (Tzaavat HaRivash), one should respond to praise and criticism in an equal way. If our inner world is that of quiet contentment with oneself, it doesn’t matter, in terms of our emotional reaction, if someone insults us or flatters us. They are perceived as the same. Equanimity, or equipoise, is the the state of being balanced within ourselves. Someone who finds inner balance is not easily knocked down by external praise or critique. Some praise and critique can actually be helpful if one doesn’t emotionally react to them, if one removes themselves from the equation. A balanced inner world has a lot to do with our egos.
In college, Rutgers College to be specific, I studied Psychology. One of my assignments was to attend a series of self help support groups and observe how the 12 step approach worked. I remember a lot of slogans and phrases that were actually helpful. For instance, the word H.A.L.T. stands for the words Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. When a person is in any one or more of these states of being they should halt what they are doing and address the issue.
Another helpful word is E.G.O. In AA I learned that EGO stands for Easing God Out. Another way of understanding an unhealthy ego is our inability to acknowledge others and their perspectives; taking up to much space with ourselves and our needs and wants. When someone eases God out, they feel that they are the center of the Universe and require external praise and validation. They are expecting rewards. Having a puffed up ego is being in a state of imbalance.
Passover observance is focused on the removal of leaven, that which puffs up bread, from our homes and diets for seven (or eight) days. Symbolically, leaven represents that which puffs up our egos. Comparatively, Matzah is more humble than bread that has risen. The days of Passover are the time for introspection and the focus on removing our arrogance and dependency on external validation. It is an opportunity to seek balance.
In a FaceBook world, where many have become dependent on how many “likes” they’ve received from their posts, we should be aware that the social network has done much damage in nourishing healthy egos. Self esteem should not be dependent on external acknowledgment. We should feel free to share with the world, our thoughts, words, art and music without the expectation of receiving a reward. This is part of being a balanced, equipoised person. May our Passover bring us closer to this ideal.