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The Torah Has Something Important to Say About Self-Esteem

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Although we forget it at times, Judaism has a positive message that more tweens — and their parents, for that matter — need to hear.

It’s an ancient idea that rails against body-shaming, upends the endless hamster-wheel of success chasing, and is profoundly counter-cultural in declaring that we all matter and have inherent worth.

What is this message? It’s simple: Each of us is stunning and incredible. It is a message that has been passed down in Jewish tradition from generation to generation, but it seems to have lost steam since modernity rolled around. It is the message that we are all b’tselem elohim, or created in the image of God.

With deference to the norms of polite society — where spiritually rich ideas are not normally discussed — we usually refrain from sharing this age-old Jewish language of intrinsic beauty and holiness. Just imagine sitting around the dinner table with friends or family, and taking the time to say that each and every one of us is special. That feels cliche, corny, or uncomfortable, right? (And that’s not to mention all the baggage around God language.)

So, we stay silent on the topic of our universal magnificence. And instead, into this vacuum, commercialism and cynicism have crept in. Instead of acknowledging our beauty, marketers tell us, “Not only are you not good enough, but you’re in luck! We have something here that can make you as great as all those other people.” For some reason, this polished and market-tested message — which focuses on our alleged deficiencies — feels more palatable and less phony than our undeniable magnificence.

As a result of this relentless messaging — which is everywhere from photoshopped magazine covers, to photoshopped advertisements, to hyper-materialistic (and photoshopped) Instagram celebrities — tweens (and their parents) are constantly told that they are not enough, that they do not deserve to be loved as they are. They are too fat, their hair is too curly, their nose is too big , and they’ll never be successful enough.

I’m here to say: enough with the bad vibes!

There is a classic joke about a Jewish father. He’s at the inauguration of his daughter as President of the United States. The father leans over in his chair and whispers to the person sitting next to him: “You know, my other daughter is a doctor.”

The time has come for us to get serious about being unapologetically ourselves — just as serious and unrelenting as the corporate or social media messages that tell us we are not good enough. It’s time to return to our spiritual roots and declare the beauty and inherent worth of all — and we need to do this not occasionally, but all the time. It is not enough to hear that we are made in God’s image in synagogue once a week, or sporadically at home when a crisis occurs. The future of stereotypical Jewish parent jokes need to be ones that tell us how worthy and loved we are, and not snide remarks about an apparent lack of success.

Words have the power to shape worlds. We must begin again to share the language of universal beauty and worth. Let’s remember this during the next report card season, or when someone snaps an unflattering photo of us. What do we do when we see that C+ or that blotchy skin? We remember that we are created b’tselem elohim — in the image of the divine — which means that our only responsibility is to be the best version of ourselves.

In other words, if your child worked hard to get that C+ in math, then that should be celebrated. If you look uncomfortable in that recent photo but you were radiant at a party last week, then both should be celebrated — because you are awesome and who cares.

B’tselem elohim — universal human worthiness — was the rallying cry for those first Jews who started this counter-cultural movement thousands of years ago. Now, it is our generation’s turn to say it again. And again. And again. Until our beauty and worthiness are all that we see when we close our eyes at night. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Who can bear to carry the baggage of society’s expectations along for the whole ride?

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