To repent, develop a healthy ego
In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko uttered his famous line, “Greed is good.”
As Jews all over the world prepare for the Jewish New Year and a 10-day period of repentance and self-reflection, I want to say something that sounds just as twisted.
Ego is good!
I know that this may sound like blasphemy coming from a rabbi, and to some degree it is.
The vast majority of Jewish textual sources, just like those in most other world religions, emphasize humility and selflessness as a core value.
There is a notion in Hebrew called “Bittul ha-yesh” that asserts that a key to spiritual and moral perfection is an aggressive nullification of the self.
One spiritual master puts it this way: "a person who thinks of their own importance and of their own ego places a barrier between themselves and God. The word 'I' can only be uttered by God.”
Put simply, ego can get in the way of all that is good and worthwhile in our lives because we end up being so focused on ourselves and our own needs.
That said, there is something about the simplicity of this idea that leaves me unsatisfied.
Is it really possible that we’re expected to place no value in the self and that any impulse for self-protection is wrong?
What would that mean for a middle school student who was being bullied at school? Or for the person at the office who is constantly getting walked all over by their colleagues? Or for the person living in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship at home?
The idea of nullification of the self also creates a stumbling block for the work of repentance and self-introspection that is expected at this time of the year.
The problem arises if we take these notions to their extreme. If we mean nothing, and our only goal is humility and selflessness, we can inadvertently diminish our sense of self worth and importance, both of which are necessary to have the confidence, strength and fortitude to look at our life, see what’s wrong and make changes. It’s really hard work and it requires a full person with a healthy ego.
There are other ideas in Judaism that can offer wisdom and balance in this situation.
There is one commentary that puts it this way:
“Without an Ego, people would feel no satisfaction in their work and no joy in their acquisition of wisdom. Without an Ego, there would be no children and no innovation. Ego is needed in the world just as much as rain, but it can be subdued and made subject to the deeds of purity.”
From this we learn that in order to do great things, including to repent and to become a better person, we need to have a certain audacity and a strong sense of self.
So many of us spend so much time beating ourselves up for our own failings. We don’t go to the gym as much as we want. We gossip at work and at home. We aren't the spouse or parents that we want to be.
All of these failings are worth working on. The key is that the starting point for change, however, cannot be self-loathing.
Repentance and personal growth has to be an act of self-love. So we have to be humble and selfless, but not so much so that we cannot imagine a better future for ourselves.
Wishing everyone a sweet season of growth and possibility.
Rabbi Mike Uram, the director and campus rabbi for the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, is contributing columns about Jewish issues for Philly.com.