March 9, 2006
Get a Life, George
I've watched few "Seinfeld" episodes, but one stands out in my mind. During a double date, George inadvertently offends Jerry's date, Jody. After George learns from Jerry that Jody doesn't like him, George falls all over himself for a second chance to make a good impression.
After George does further damage to his reputation, he sits in Monk's obsessing about Jody to his date Karen, who's annoyed that George is focusing so much attention on another woman.
"Who cares if she doesn't like you? Does everybody in the world have to like you?" Karen asks.
"Yes! Yes! Everybody has to like me. I must be liked!" George yells.
Sure, we laugh at George as that typical nebbish. But there's a little bit of George in each and every one of us.
We are all a little too dependent on others' approval and admiration. This is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also may show that one doesn't feel close with God.
Consider that there are no less than three different views of oneself: The view that I have of myself, the view that others have of me and the view that God has of me.
Which view is most important? Most of us would probably place God's view as highest priority, our own view as second priority and the view of others as lowest priority. But when it bothers us that another holds us in low esteem, aren't we displaying that both our own view and God's view take a back seat to our neighbor's view?
A medieval rabbi by the name of Yaavatz gave an analogy: Say a person has two diamonds. One is a polished, flawless 7-karat masterpiece, valued at $1 million. The other is an unpolished, flawed, 1-karat diamond, valued at a few-hundred dollars. If I lose the 1-karat diamond, my grief will be short-lived, because I know that I've still got my $1 million diamond.
The way others perceive us, compared to the way God perceives us, is like the inexpensive diamond compared to the expensive diamond. This is why a spiritual person tends not to spend so much time checking his public approval rating. Instead, working on God's approval is what really matters.
We can learn a lot from a guy named Haman about dependency upon others' approval. According to the story that we read on Purim, when Haman would walk down the street, everyone was ordered to bow down in deference. Yet, the Megillah tells us, Mordechai would not prostrate or bow (Esther 3:2). This annoyed Haman to no end (I think his last name was Constanza). Because of Haman's obsession with image, he decided that it wasn't enough to just execute Mordechai; he had to wipe out the entire Jewish people.
The Haman story teaches us a very important lesson in human nature. Our obsession with image is a destructive trait, and it can lead perfectly decent people to completely lose their moral compass.
On the other hand, we can also learn a lot from Mordechai about healthy attitudes about self-image. Note that Mordechai did what he felt was right in his eyes and in God's eyes. It simply wasn't right to bow before this self-absorbed Haman, and so Mordechai refused to kowtow. He didn't worry about the consequences to himself or the way people would judge him. He knew right was right no matter what anyone else thought.
Human frailty is something funny when we see people on TV like George on "Seinfeld" displaying it. But it's disappointing when we see our close friends display this kind of insecurity. It's even scarier when we look in the mirror and see the false facades we've created staring back at us. Maybe that's one of the reasons why we wear masks on Purim: to remind ourselves that it's what behind the mask that counts, not the way others see us.
In La-La Land, we are told that image is everything. People gauge success and self-worth by whether or not they are placed on the A-list of invited guests to the latest Hollywood party. Purim is a time to acknowledge the masquerade for what it is: a cheap mask that says nothing about the real me.
May we succeed in destroying all enemies of our people, both the external Haman's and our own internal ones.
Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union.
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