An internet search of the phrase “self-confidence” produces pages and pages of results, and they seem to basically all be articles about raising low self-esteem. Not until the third page did I find a title that seemed to be about high self-esteem – and even that turned out to be misleading: The section titled “Range of Self-Esteem,” which purported to help the reader “recognize the extremes of your self-esteem,” only defined “low” and “healthy” self-esteem, contending that “…it’s hard to have too much of it. Boasting and feeling superior to others around you isn’t a sign of too much self-esteem. It’s more likely evidence of insecurity and low self-esteem.”
Apparently, we humans are much more likely to be unsure of ourselves than to be too confident.
This is not a new struggle. We find it even among our biblical heroes, many of whom repeatedly express uncertainty about their abilities or futures – despite having been tapped by G-d Himself for those abilities and promised those futures.
For instance, Avraham asks “what will You give me, and I go childless?” (Bereishit 15:2) and “with what will I know that I will inherit [the land]?” (ibid. 8), despite already having been promised children and land more than once. Multiple prophets express sentiments similar to Yirmiyahu’s statement, just after G-d said He knows him intimately and chose him as a prophet, that “I don’t know how to speak, for I am a young man” (Yirmiyahu 1:6).
Perhaps most famously and at greatest length, Moshe offers argument after argument against his suitability and prospects for success: “Who am I, to go to Pharaoh?” (ibid. 11); “What will I tell them” when they want to know who You are? (ibid. 13); and even “they won’t believe me and won’t listen to my voice” (4:1) right after G-d told him they would (3:18)! I’m not a good speaker… Send someone else! (4:10, 13) He continues to express doubt in his capabilities even after successfully getting the people out of Egypt. “Where will I get meat for all these people?” (Bamidbar 11:13) “It’s too hard for me” (ibid. 14).
We might be tempted to see this lack of confidence as a positive character trait; after all, we do like humility. Moshe, in fact, is held up as a paragon of humility (Bamidbar 12:3).
On the other hand, there’s a reason all those articles suggest boosting low self-esteem, rather than commending it. When so-called “humility” is actually a lack of self-confidence, it runs the risk of paralyzing us and preventing us from accomplishing our goals. Moshe was extremely humble, but he still had to find the inner strength and confidence to do his job.
So how did our heroes break through their uncertainties, and accomplish what they were meant to do rather than curling up in a fetal ball of insecurity? Can we take inspiration from them to overcome our own?
Actually, in these and most biblical examples I’ve noticed, the individual does not find his own inner strength.
Where, then, do they get the confidence to move ahead?
Avraham, don’t worry, yes you will have a biological heir and this is what’s going to happen, and here’s a ritual to seal the deal.
Yirmiyahu, don’t say that about yourself! Don’t be afraid; I’ll be with you.
Moshe, don’t worry, here’s what you’re going to tell them, and this is how it’s going to go, and here are multiple miracles you can perform to get their attention, and yes they are going to listen to you, I’ll tell you what to say, Aharon is going to help… Even when Hashem expresses anger – that too, is reassurance. Moshe, I will help you, just go!
So any of us who receive prophetic instructions to do a job, along with G-d’s personal reassurance that we’ll be able to do it, can indeed look to these heroes for inspiration to work past any self-doubt and take G-d’s word for it and get busy. Because, you know – you know – He’s right there at every step.
But how many of us have heard G-d’s voice telling us our unique task in this world and reassuring us that we’re good enough to do it? How many of us have experienced targeted miracles to convince us He really means it and will be there to fill in any gaps in our efficacy?
Fortunately, there’s a model in Tanach who does overcome her own self-doubt – who shows us how to look for G-d’s voice telling us what to do, and that we can do it, even when the voice isn’t clear; who reassures us that it’s worth taking the risks to do what we “hear” G-d telling us to do, even when we can’t be sure we’re “hearing” Him right.
When we first meet Esther, she’s a child – an extremely obedient child. The Megillah tells us more than once that Esther did everything Mordechai told her, and at first that sounds like praise. But the natural order of things is that children grow up and become more independent; if they remain stuck in a pattern of simply doing what they’re told, “like when she was being raised by him” (Esther 2:20), how will they ever build the confidence needed to face a situation and determine the proper course of action without being told?
Esther’s obedient nature presents a particular problem when one set of instructions conflicts with another: Mordechai tells her to go to the king even though she wasn’t summoned, but there’s a rule!
Whether Esther’s hesitation is due to fear for her life, certainty that she’ll be summoned any day now, or simply her innate nature as a rule-follower – Mordechai needs to snap her out of it. But he does so, oddly, by telling her he doesn’t know whether saving the Jewish people is truly her job.
“If you are silent at this time, salvation will arise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s house will be lost. And who knows whether for a time such as this you came to be royalty?” (Esther 4:14)
How is this lack of knowledge supposed to motivate her, especially if someone else could do the same job?
By teaching her to acknowledge and embrace uncertainty, and to accept responsibility to act despite that uncertainty.
Hashem is not explicitly present in the Megillah. He never tells Esther what He wants her to do, and sends no obviously miraculous signs reassuring her that He’ll help her do it. Implicitly, He’s all over the place, but the signs are less clear, and without the overt communication other heroes enjoyed – who knows?
But lack of certainty does not constitute permission to be passive.
We can’t know for certain why Hashem places us where He places us, or gives us the specific tools and abilities He gives us. Short of prophetic communication – and as we saw above, maybe even with it – we can’t have total self-confidence.
Mordechai’s message to Esther is that we have to do it anyway.
It’s not about certainty, and it’s not about being the only one for the job. It’s about taking what we’re given and doing the best we can with our situation, with our tools – even if it’s hard to be sure what tools we possess, even if we’re not sure how to use them.
And the greatness of Esther is that despite the habits of a lifetime of letting others make decisions for her, she is able to hear Mordechai’s one last piece of instruction to her and turn herself around. She awakens to the advantages offered by her position as queen (obvious to an outsider, but maybe hard to recognize herself) and the possibility she is there precisely for this purpose, and comes up with a detailed plan. And at the same time, she too accepts uncertainty.
“Who knows?” said Mordechai, and Esther responds, “if I’m lost, I’m lost.” Maybe we’re wrong; maybe I’ll fail. Maybe we’re misunderstanding what I’m here for, or maybe we got that right but I’m clueless and will botch the whole thing. Okay. I’ll try anyway.
We don’t know; maybe we’ll fail. But we each have a responsibility to look at our lives, notice the resources and abilities we’ve been given, and figure out what we might be able to do with those tools, what Hashem might have intended in giving them to us. We have to act, and accept the possibilities in all directions. “If I’m lost, I’m lost.”
We might fail. But if we don’t even try – if we simply leave it all up to others – well, Hashem has His plans, and He has other ways of fulfilling them; salvation will arise from some other place. In that case, we can be certain of just one thing: “You and your father’s house will be lost.” Not physical destruction, perhaps (why would they perish if salvation arises for the Jews as a whole?), but a destruction of personal responsibility. Someone else will accomplish the job, because G-d has infinite means at His disposal – but you, everything that led you to this point and everything you could have done with that, will be lost.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.