For all of us Jews, Elul is a month of reflection as we go into the Yamim Noraim. For me, there’s the added reflection that comes with my birthday. But there are a lot of Jews who got the message that Elul and the Yamim Noraim are times of serious self-deprecation. They were taught that they’re supposed to feel bad about themselves. Supposedly, this is supposed to give us a sense of humility so that we’ll regret our transgressions and resolve to do better. But for so many of the people who learned it this way, all it does is make for serious anxiety and lowered self-esteem. And that harms not only the person but others around that person.
When it comes to self-deprecation, I have my own experiences with that. Here’s just one example. When I was in elementary school, we would often play games like kickball or BBK (it’s a fun game but the explanation is too long for this piece) and we would have to pick teams. The only time that I wasn’t picked last was when I was a “captain” who got to pick. Back then, I thought that I was picked last because my classmates didn’t like me and I resented it. But that wasn’t entirely true- most of my classmates were much nicer to me than that for which I gave them credit. The truth was that I wasn’t an athlete and I wasn’t good at sports. I played kickball and BBK with my classmates and while I did sometimes score at kickball, I NEVER scored a point at BBK. Of course my classmates wanted teams with good players. But there I was in self-deprecation mode thinking that I couldn’t get my classmates to like me.
As I got older, I began to see past my self-deprecation and I started feeling more comfortable in my own skin. But only as an adult when I started to work with clothes and accessories did I come to realize that it was an issue of self-deprecation vs. knowing my limits.
With clothing and accessories, I see self-deprecation in the form of “I don’t look good in anything” but I also see knowing one’s limits in the form of “some things just don’t make me look good and that’s OK because there are others that do make me look good.” When it came to my athletic ability, or lack thereof, I learned that it’s OK to not be athletic or to not be good at sports because I could be good at other things (like using clothing and accessories to help myself and others look their best). And I didn’t have to be an athlete to be good at aerobics and exercising- thanks to a few kind words from an instructor and then from a classmate, I became an exercise enthusiast. Most importantly, I didn’t have to be good at sports for my peers to like me.
The big difference is that when we know our limits, we also know our strengths. And that’s crucial. Rav Yisroel Salanter commented that as bad as it is when people don’t know their weaknesses, it’s worse when they don’t know their strengths. We need to use our strengths to serve Klal Yisrael, become better people, and grow closer to Hashem.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t give our best effort in all necessary areas, including our weaker areas. It won’t make us better at those things but it will help. When I played kickball or BBK with my classmates, I gave it my best effort. I even scored a few times at kickball. I almost scored once at BBK but then the ball went up my nose. And looking back, I realize that most of my classmates did appreciate my efforts. Plus, if we give our best effort, we might discover a new strength. I used to have a terrible time writing book reports, essays, and term papers but with the help of a few teachers and one administrator, I learned how to find my writing voice.
When it comes to teshuvah, we do need to reflect. But if all we do is get into self-deprecation, we’re only digging ourselves into a hole. Instead, we need to acknowledge our limits along with our strengths. Then we can use our strengths to do teshuvah and become better people.
I just hope that my classmates can forgive me for resenting them.