We saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Bamidbar 13:33
After my injury, my self-esteem fell through the floor. Loss of much of my physical function left me with feelings of ineffectuality. I asked, how can I be worth anything to anyone, including myself, with my body in the condition it is in? What purpose could my physical rehabilitation be worth? I felt there was no reason to have long-term goals, for there would be nothing I could accomplish. As I struggled with my self-image, my Rebbe, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, said to me, “Yehoshua, there is more to life than walking…. You can sit and learn.” Through conversations with Rabbi Orlowek, I slowly began to consider my self-worth from a different perspective: that it is intrinsic and untouchable. My essence was rooted in my soul – I am of value beyond my physical abilities. I am connected to my Creator, Whose love for me and faith in my ability to succeed at the challenges He gives me, are beyond human intellect to fully grasp. I further connected to this message through the many interactions I had with my community, my family, my friends and teachers of Torah. Their efforts to connect with me sent a message: you mean more to us than the physical body you inhabit. There is far more to you than your physical appearance and limitations.
When the idea of a shidduch was first proposed, I was still in the early stages of this personal discovery. I concluded that there must be something significantly wrong with this woman if she was interested in spending the rest of her life with a fellow inhabiting such a wrecked body. I saw myself as broken: how could another see me as whole? If I couldn’t see myself as lovable, how could someone else see that in me? I am grateful every day that I didn’t succumb to my fears and that I followed the lead of what others saw in me. As I got to know the woman who came to be my wife, I learned that she was a person who saw the bigger picture. She shared once that her decision to marry me was helped by her awareness that spending the rest of her life with a man in a wheelchair was only short-term, not eternity. With this perspective, it wasn’t too difficult to look past my injury and physical limitations. The decision to marry my wife and be in a committed relationship with someone possessing an almost diametrically opposite perspective from my own has given me the daily challenge of looking at myself positively in all realms of life. I have to pay close attention not to project my faults onto others or assume they are thinking ill of me because I have a negative frame of mind. Now, thirteen years later, I continue to be tested with situations in which I find myself once again questioning my self-worth. The difference now is in the foundation of the personal work I have done, upon which I now stand.
Rabbi Orlowek’s book on child raising, Raising Roses Among Thorns has been very helpful in my work in this area. On page 219, he defines self-esteem as, “A person’s recognition of his or her innate, immutable goodness, based upon the fact that his or her soul was created by G-d and is forever tied to the Source of all goodness and purity. [As we say every day in our morning prayers:] “The soul that You have placed in me is pure.” This purity is based neither on my evaluation of myself, nor on other people’s evaluation of me. We are intrinsically good, we are children of Hashem, and His love for us is eternal. I know I am good because God told us so in His Torah. Although there is certainly retribution for sinfulness, this in no way contradicts the fact that I am intrinsically good, and that the path back to Hashem, back to my natural self, is therefore always open.”
Harnessing our faith to the bottomless love our Creator has for us can help lead us on the path to back to our natural selves. Mindfully living with this awareness can bring meaning into the three dimensions in which human beings function: relationships between man and God, man and his fellow man, and man and himself. All three are alluded to in the verse, “and you shall love your fellow man as yourself, for I am Hashem.” “Love for others is predicated upon love for yourself” (Ibid., page 220). May Hashem help us see the good inherent within ourselves, allow the love, care and respect of others to enter our hearts and use authentic and self-love to connect with all those with whom we interact.