Off the Pulpit


“Live out loud, you are unique, celebrate who you are.” Our world is awash in such slogans. Self-esteem is prized, self-assertion applauded and spiking the football, rather than arrogance, is considered justifiable pride.

There is another way of being in this world described in our tradition. The three Hebrew letters for “me” – aleph, nun and yod, can be rearranged to spell “ayin” which means “nothing.” When I was learning counseling I read of the practice of “bittul hayesh” – nullifying the self, in order to make space for others. It is not a lack of belief in one’s own worth, but a lack of need for constant assertion and expansion.

Judaism has a powerful model of contraction, tsimtsum, in human relations. The kabbalists teach that God contracted to permit room for the world, as parents must step back to allow children to grow. Sometimes the self is better served by restraint than by overflow. In her marvelous book “Quiet,” on the “power of introverts,” Susan Cain describes how rich is the experience and contribution of those who are often seen as sitting on the sidelines. Given the teachings of Judaism it is no surprise that she dedicates the book to her grandfather, a Rabbi, who “spoke so eloquently the language of quiet.”