August 7, 2018

How we look at ourselves (Shelach-Lecha)

Parashat Shelach-Lecha describes the tragic episode of the meraglim – the spies, who were sent to journey around the land of Israel to find out ‘what kind of land it is. Are the people who live there strong or weak, few or many?’ (Bemidbar 13:18-19). Unfortunately, they returned with a negative report. ‘The land that we crossed to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants. All the men we saw there were huge! While we were there, we saw the titans. They were sons of the giant, who descended from the [original] titans. We felt like tiny grasshoppers! That’s all that we were in their eyes!’ (Bemidbar 13:32-33).

According to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), the fact that the spies saw themselves as grasshoppers in the eyes of the titans was their primary mistake. As he explains, a person who worries about how others view him will have no peace of mind, and will live with constant anxiety. Self-esteem should not be dependent on others. Instead, a positive self-image is vital.

Clearly, the message of the Kotzker Rebbe is vital for our time. However, for a person to maintain a positive self-image, they must be cognizant of the way in which their environment and their role models can influence the way they see themselves, and to prove this, I would like to refer to the famous Stanford Prison experiment.

The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted in 1971 by a team of researchers led by psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo. Twenty-four undergraduates were selected to play the roles of both guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. As has been recorded by Zimbardo, the prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, and this lead to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations.

In his book ‘The Lucifer Effect’, Professor Zimbardo reviewed the feedback he received from both the ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ after he ended the experiment. In one case, a former ‘prisoner’ remarked that, ‘I had the feeling somewhere along the study that the guards were bigger than the prisoners’. This comment is very telling especially since all the ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ were of the same height. However, as Zimbardo explained, ‘the prisoners had come to perceive the guards as taller than they actually were, as though their guard power provided them with a two-inch shoe lift’. What we see from here is that a power imbalance can have a devastating effect on self-image.

This week, information about another rabbi/educator who has misused his position to abuse others has come to light, and in her important remarks on the subject, Shayna Goldberg has reflected on the way that dangerous teachers can have a devastating effect on the self-image of their students:

“I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire…Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images… Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem…Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices. Unfortunately, teachers like this are not uncommon, and we don’t talk enough about the damage that they do. About the fact that the rapid growth and change that they foster usually doesn’t last or, if it does, comes at a heavy price. About the fact that their students, years later, often find themselves empty and lost.”

As an educator, these remarks are crucially important, and I am fortunate that the environment where I work stress the importance of placing the students first. However, what we learn from the above is that the people we look up to as titans can often have a huge effect on how we look at ourselves, and that if those ‘giants’ misuse their position of authority, it can have a crushing effect.

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