Seventy Faces of Torah Self-Doubt: God’s Presence and The Enemy Within (Parshat Ki Teitzei, 21:10-25:19)
In preparation for the upcoming High Holy Days, during the month of Elul we embark on a process of self-reflection, evaluating the state of our lives and our souls. We recall those times we have missed the mark, and we seek forgiveness for the harm we’ve caused. And we ask what we need to shift in order to be our fullest, most alive selves in the coming year—in the word of the mahzor, the High Holy Day prayerbook, to “choose life”.
Traditionally, we are called to focus most on our relationship to others and to God. We are expected to do teshuva, or repair, for harm caused in the two major categories of commandments: ben adam l’havero—between one person and another—and ben adam la-makom—between a person and the Divine. Perhaps because we don’t quite have the same traditional language for it, or perhaps it feels indulgent or less important, or can be the most difficult to see, we often pay less attention to the ways in which we’ve harmed ourselves.
One of the foundational commandments in Judaism is v’ahavta l’reacha k’mocha—to love others as we love ourselves. This biblical verse could have simply said, “Love others”, period.” By linking love of self with love of others, however, the verse underscores the fundamental connection between how we treat ourselves and how we interact with the broader world. In this season of making amends, we would be well-served to turn inward as much as we turn outward, and to look for the connections between the various ways in which we’ve missed the mark.
This year, I am struggling with self-doubt—something almost everyone experiences at one time or another, especially when we are trying something new. Not always a wholly negative emotion, self-doubt can motivate us to put in extra effort, but unchecked, it can snowball into something damaging, paralyzing us with nagging, persistent fears that we are not good enough (no matter how unfounded those fears may be).
In my work as a social entrepreneur, this kind of self-doubt can cause me to stifle new ideas for fear that they won’t work and that I will be publicly embarrassed. Self-doubt keeps us small, stops us from taking chances, and robs us—and the world—of the gifts we might give. It can be expressed as an armor of self-protection, harshness, or cynicism, as we attempt to hide our vulnerability and longing, causing harm not only to ourselves, but to our relationships, including our relationship with God.
In Jewish tradition, doubt is one way that Amalek—described in the Torah as our perpetual, ultimate enemy—is understood through a spiritual lens. The numerical value of the Hebrew letters that spell Amalek is 240, the same value as the Hebrew word for doubt, safek. We encounter Amalek early on our journey to the Promised Land. Having just escaped slavery, witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, and been brought safely to dry ground on the other side, only a few verses later, the doubt creeps in, in the form of tangible concerns: How will we eat? Will there be enough water?
God quickly provides manna to feed us, and causes water to flow forth from the rock when Moses strikes it. But there seems to be another kind of doubt that God is unable to address so easily. We read in Exodus (17:7) that the question driving us is im Hashem bikirbenu, o ain? Bikirbenu, most simply translated as “among us”, can also be understood as “within”; is God within us, or not? This is an important way that self-doubt operates—we wonder whether or not we’re on the “right” path, whether we are good enough, worthy enough, holy and whole enough. In fact, immediately after this question, in the very next verse we read, “Amalek came and fought with Israel.” Self-doubt is an enemy with mythic powers of endurance.
This week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei—always read during the first part of the month of Elul—reminds us of this struggle with self-doubt. In the final verses of the parasha we read, “Remember what Amalek did to you in your going out of Egypt; how when you were on your path, he surprised you, all the stragglers in your rear, and you were weary and hungry.” As my teacher Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan explains, this is just how self-doubt works. It will attack us when we least expect it, even at the height of our success, through any opening we allow it.
How do we keep persistent self-doubt from knocking us off our path? Looking back at Exodus (17:11), we read that in their fight against Amalek, when Moses would raise his hands, the Israelites would prevail, but when he dropped his hands, Amalek would gain power. Eventually, Moses’ hands became heavy and he was unable to hold them up by himself. Aaron and Hur came in to support Moses, holding his hands up for him when he grew weak, and the Israelites won.
The Amalek of self-doubt is often too powerful for us to defeat on our own. Learning from Moses, when the struggle becomes too great, we can turn to those we trust to assist us. Kerev, the noun at the center of the word bikirbenu, also means innards—literally, our guts. They help us digest what we eat by taking in what is useful and getting rid of what’s not. In the process of sifting through our own fears and self-criticisms, our loved ones and teachers can help us locate what is helpful and shed the rest, and can remind us of the truth that, indeed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Divine is always bikirbenu, within us and a part of us.
As we approach the High Holidays and evaluate where we are and where we’d like to be, we should not forget the importance of also making amends in a third category: ben adam l’atzmo, within ourselves. We are, each of us, on a journey through our own spiritual wilderness. The poet Sylvia Plath once wrote, “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Finding our path requires creative risk-taking as we chart an unknown course. As we make our way during the sacred days ahead, may we find those who help us remember the Divine spark within us, and may this give us the strength and the confidence to stay the course towards the Promised Land.
Rabbi Adina Allen, Co-Founder & Creative Director of the Jewish Studio Project, is a spiritual leader, writer, curator and teacher. She was ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. She serves on the Board of Directors of Urban Adamah, and is an alum of the CIRCLE Interfaith Leadership Fellowship and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.