Are You Worthy of Love?
Judaism doesn’t have the whole confess-to-a-spiritual-figure thing. But for whatever reason, in my experience, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. On more than one occasion I’ve been on the receiving end of a Jewish confessional. Someone comes over to me—after a class, after a service—and tells me just how “bad” a Jew they are. Of course, I tell them that they’re wrong about themselves. But mostly, they don’t believe me. The look in their eyes is part wistful, part mischievous. “If you only knew…”, they trail off. French philosopher René Descartes famously wrote, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Or, as it’s known in English, “I think, therefore I am.” While Descartes had existential intentions, we might understand these words in a more self-referential way, as a commentary on the power of self-fulfilling prophecies.
How we see ourselves matters. Self-perception creates reality. As anyone with a little life experience can attest, the way “I think” about myself goes a long way in shaping the way that “I am.” If we see ourselves as “bad Jews,” we’ve stacked the deck against ourselves. By choosing to define ourselves in negative terms, we’ve set the bar—and our expectations of self—low. No growth mindset. No striving toward something greater. Belief in personal mediocrity is the kryptonite of progress. As the comedian Steven Wright once put it: “They told me in school that ‘practice makes perfect.’ Then they told me, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ So I stopped practicing.”
The Chassidic masters employ the parable of the “King in the Field” to describe the spiritual opportunity we enjoy in the month of Elul, which precedes the High Holy Days. In short, the parable likens our spiritual opportunity this time of year to the people’s opportunity to meet the king as he passes through the countryside on the way to his palace. As the king greets the people, the parable concludes, he receives everyone warmly, with a radiant smile. The message is not simply about access. It’s about love and acceptance. Knowing that the king will receive us with love and warmth and bathe us in the glow of his smile offers us the encouragement to step up and greet the king. No matter what we have or haven’t done, we are loved and accepted. Unconditionally.
This is the message of Elul and the High Holidays. G-d is ready to embrace us, to share unconditional love and acceptance. Knowing this radically shifts our self-perception. We are not “bad Jews.” We are worthy of G-d’s love. “I think, therefore I am.” Clutching onto a negative self-image breeds negativity. We won’t be motivated to grow spiritually if we believe that mediocrity is our destiny. But when we recognize our true value, as seen through the reflection in G-d’s eyes, we are emboldened to lean into that vision. Because if there’s one thing this holiday season teaches us, it’s that there’s no such thing as a bad Jew. Only a loved one.
Rabbi Ari Sollish is a noted lecturer and author, and the director of The Torah Center of Atlanta.