There are two opinions of Rabbi Akiva in two separate Talmudic discussions that seem to contradict each other. In one discussion, Rabbi Akiva declares “v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha’ to be the “klal gadol baTorah”. In other words, Rabbi Akiva considers “loving your friend like you love yourself” to be the highest principle in the Torah.
However, now let’s look at another opinion of his in the Talmudic tractate Baba Metzia. There, the Rabbis are talking about a case where there is only one container left of water for two people who find themselves in an arid land….If the two people split it neither of them will survive, but if one drinks it for himself then he will survive the journey back to civilization…..and so, what does Rabbi Akiva say a person should do? Split it with their fellow, of course?
Rabbi Akiva says that you should drink it for yourself!…..Incredible! The same Rabbi Akiva who holds the elevated treatment of others in such high regard so as to call it the highest principle in the Torah is saying that you should drink it all for yourself and let your fellow die? How can this be?
The answer is that there is actually a “pre-quel” that Rabbi Akiva holds to “loving your friend like you love yourself”. In other words “loving your friend like you love yourself” is actually the second greatest principle of the Torah. What then is the first? What would explain the seeming contradiction between these two disparate positions of Rabbi Akiva? The answer is that valuing and loving yourself is actually the highest principle of the Torah. After all, first one must love his or herself before he or she can love another person.
But why is this important now? At this time of year, it is an obligation to introspect through a process called Cheshbon Hanefesh, which is the Jewish form of soul searching. When translated literally it means, “Making an accounting of one’s soul”. We look deep inside ourselves and think over the past year and analyze ‘how we did’ Classically, we think about our sins so we can repent for them over the High holidays, and as part of our repentance process we are actually supposed to make a list: What have we done wrong Ben Adam L’makom (between man and G-d- this category involves commandments such as saying blessings, keeping kosher, etc.), and also what we have we done wrong Ben Adam L’chaveiro (Between man and his fellow- this category involves prohibitions such as not saying gossip and not embarrassing other people, and commandments such as helping our fellow man, etc.). But there is a third category that is often overlooked which relates to our story and its ‘prequel” of Rabbi Akiva above. That category is called Ben Adam L’atzmo (between man and himself) and the Vilna Goan includes this as a category when dividing up the commandments. To underscore its importance, let’s think for a moment about how the obligation to introspect is actually called “Cheshbon Hanefesh”. Is this actually an obligation to G-d, or an obligation to one’s fellow? I see it as actually fitting into that third category which reflects an obligation to oneself that results in improved service to G-d.
The obligations we have to ourselves take many different forms.
The closest Torah source we have reflecting one’s obligations to oneself is from sefer Devarim perek daled “וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם- You should guard your soul greatly.”
Many Rabbinical commentators take this to mean “shmirat haguf” (guarding one’s life\body) but really the words themselves are talking specifically about our nefesh\soul. In other words, there is more to our worldly “vehicle” than our body: There is our spiritual nature, our emotional nature, our soul- that intangible part of who we are that makes us way more than a bag of bones. It is what makes us tick, makes us who we are. We are obligated to guard our soul. I would like to suggest that this guarding involves first valuing and loving oneself (which involves self care, self confidence, self esteem, etc.) and appreciating the value of our own personal service to G-d as being imperative for the Jewish people as a whole.
Every machine needs upkeep and tweaking. Some need software updates. And therefore it stands to reason that our personal machines also need spiritual updates; we need to maintain our vehicles both spiritually and physically and emotionally and through this understanding we realize how important it is to evaluate our actions and try to fix faults at this time of year, both in terms of our actions to others and in terms of our actions towards ourselves.
A good starting point is to be positive and loving to ourselves the same way we are to our friends and family. Rabbi Abraham Twersky says that the biggest problem facing our generation is low self-confidence\self-esteem. People say or think negative things to themselves and are harsh on themselves in a way they would never do to others and yet your own self is the person you have to live with 24 hours a day. Therefore, who better to develop a strong positive relationship with than your constant companion in the mirror?
On the flip side, people also don’t give themselves enough positive reinforcement. How many times a week do we tell someone else that we are proud of them or give a compliment? we need to give these to ourselves too! Don’t just feel good about something you’ve done, speak up to yourself and verbalize it. We need to say things like, “you did a really good job in that situation” or even “good for you for keeping your mouth shut,” etc. It’s not enough to feel the feeling you need to meta-cognitive-ize it. I’ll tell you right now why this self-talk is important. Because all of our realities are created by our own thoughts. There is a popular saying nowadays that goes something like, “Most of your battle in life is fought between your own ears.” It has been shown empirically that thoughts lead to your emotions which lead to your actions. So, if you are a happier person you are likely to do better things and make healthier decisions on the whole.
But now you might ask, that’s all well and good but how do we become magically happier or have happier thoughts? Many Rabbinical sources tell us that this comes from getting to know ourselves better, and therefore going through the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh does just that. Take some time every day to think over your actions and to see if you are happy with what has been going on in your life. Don’t wait all the way to Rosh Hashana to take an accounting. The Messilat Yesharim says we should instead analyze our actions every day and in this way, we will live all the days of our life in teshuvah\repentance. Everyone is busy, so I suggest even just setting aside one car ride a day to sit in silence and do this: no music, no phone calls, just your own thoughts as you drive.
Look at the “Cheshbon Hanefesh” process as a managerial assessment of yourself. This is different than “controlling yourself”. Let’s take the example of anger- it’s probably not realistic to put it in a box and say it will be controlled completely and that “It will never happen again starting now!” Instead, in a managerial assessment you would say, “when it does happen again, how can I use my other personal tools and strengths to manage it?” So really this assessment is more about, “How are all my units working together?”
Rav Shlomo Volbe said that a good starting point is for a person to identify their ‘main middah\character trait’- he taught that everyone is given a special character trait by G-d for them to excel at above all other traits and a person should figure their own trait out in order to use this to help work on their other traits…could be the trait of happiness, could be the trait of forgiveness, or could just be the trait of organization or alacrity.
Lastly, because of each person’s uniqueness, the Talmud tells us that each person should tell themselves, “B’svili nivra haolam- The world was created just for me”. In other words, I have a lot of potential. I am like a full world and I shouldn’t waste this potential….but on the other hand don’t we also have man compared in the Torah to nothingness? “V’anochi afar v’aifer- I am but dust and dirt”. Rabbi Simcha Bunim explains this dichotomy by saying that a person should have two pockets and in one they should keep the notion of “I am but dust and dirt” and in the other one “The world was created for me”. This represents knowing your strengths and knowing your weaknesses and most of the mistakes in life come from accidentally putting your hand in the wrong pocket for that particular situation. Some situations require you to recognize your strengths and some call for you to acknowledge your weaknesses… And this comes from knowing oneself!
And so, as you do the process of “Cheshbon Hanfesh\soul searching” and think through your year don’t only make a list of your sins, make a list of your successes to feel proud of and give yourself encouragement from these as well. The Messilat Yesharim says Cheshbon Hanefesh also applies to the good things about yourself and your good deeds! It’s also a good idea to make a list of blessings G-d has given you over the past year as well to thank Him for. On Rosh Hashana do not forget that last year you were standing in the same “spot” asking for G-d’s mercy, kindness and blessings, and here you are still standing, one of the chosen group given the opportunity to stand before G-d and ask even more of him the next time around! There is a reason you are here, and G-d loves you. What better reason to remember Rabbi Akiva’s true highest principle and love yourself as well?