We are so used to lessons and sermons taken from Pirke Avot, we are sometimes surprised to find right in front of us something that we somehow missed. I have found that when thinking about some people who have been astonished when they are reading through the book of Psalms discover that “The Lord is my shepherd” is right there in the Book of Psalms, even though they knew all along very well that it is the 23rd Psalm.
One such passage in Chapter 2 of Pirke Avot happened to me: Rabbi Shimon says: …Do not consider yourself a bad person.
On the one hand, I might say, “of course I shouldn’t”, it is unhealthy psychologically to do so. But after some review of the past week or two, one might discover that you and I have done exactly that — for some reason you had put yourself down. Now, it is bad enough for me to think that I encounter others who have caused me to think that. I am not paranoid, imagining, “They’re out to get me.” Neither do I have a job with an arrogant boss who takes pleasure in screaming about my incompetence. Nor am I an object of bullying.
These triggering events sometimes seem to just slip into daily living. Too often we might not notice, or even if we notice, we let it pass as one of those insignificant moments. My sense is that we should become more self-aware, because the lowering of one’s self image, saps some of the energy a person needs to get on with living Life well and fully, i.e., doing Mitzvahs that benefit others.
There is another aspect to this problem. For students who find the Talmud’s intricate Halachic arguments too difficult to follow (expressed in Yiddish by, “You do not have a Gemara kup”) and favor surfing the pages for “juicy” Aggadot, you would be richly rewarded by skimming the thin volume Ta’anit. It is just “loaded with goodies”. For our discussion, this is a partial quote from a longer story (20a-b):
נזדמן לו אדם אחד שהיה מכוער ביותר. אמר לו: שלום עליך רבי! ולא החזיר לו. אמר לו: ריקה, כמה מכוער אותו האיש! שמא כל בני עירך מכוערין כמותך? אמר לו: איני יודע, אלא לך ואמור לאומן שעשאני .כמה מכוער כלי זה שעשית
A certain Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon (some texts reverse the names) was coming from the town of Migdal Gedor. Riding high on his horse, he is feeling rather conceited and feeling very good because he has just learned a great deal of Torah. Along the way he runs into a physically ugly person. The man greets him, “Shalom, Rabbi!”, Rabbi does not respond. But then the Rabbi says to him, “Empty one! You are so ugly. Maybe everyone in your town is as ugly as you.” The man then replies, “I don’t know, but go to the Craftsperson who made me and say, ‘How ugly is this item that You have made.”
The Rabbi is appalled by his own behavior and by the end of the story, he gets off the horse and humbly asks to be forgiven. But the damage has been done, and the message is clear: The Rabbi — of all people — made a grave Jewish theological faux pas.
That is the second issue with accepting a personally low self-image. It means that the Creator just didn’t do a very good job of it. This lesson matches well with another Talmudic statement (Shavuot 35a) that on first reading may make the student off balance, ‘One who curses oneself or others — in both cases it is a transgression.” Of course, we know it is wrong to curse others, but here, right on the page, the words mean that it is just as wrong to do it to ourselves. Now, I am certain the Talmud is speaking of a formally-defined curse, but, by extension, I think it is not unfair to include what we have described above – not to do it to ourselves even in a much-milder form. It does no good for us either psychologically or in the greater scheme of our mindset.
As Deuteronomy 4:9 would have it: Watch yourself and take very good care of yourself.