Early one morning, a mother went in to wake up her son.

"Wake up, son. It's time to go to school!"

"But why, Mom? I don't want to go!"

"Why don't you want to go?" the mother asks.

"Well, the kids hate me for one, and the teachers hate me, too!"

"Give me a good reason, Mom, why I should get up and go to school?" her son asks.

"Well, for one, you are 48 years old. And for another, you're the principal."

Blame It On Self-Esteem

Seeing the tremendous challenges and hurdles that our educational system is struggling with, we are all collectively trying to figure out where we are going wrong. There are many views and opinions out there, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that our children are suffering from poor self-esteem. Self-esteem seems to be at the root of all of society's ills, from depression and drug abuse, to road rage and relationship failures, and of course, the occasional school shooting. It seems as if every problem endemic to the human condition can be traced back to good old self-esteem and the lack of it, particularly in early childhood.

We are told, nay exhorted, that a child has to feel good about himself, that he's important, that he's special, that he's capable. Self-esteem is something all parents want to give their children, and some work hard at it, others do not. They criticize their children and then feel guilty about it, saying their parents did it to them. So, parents find themselves doing one or the other, either boosting self-esteem or feeling guilty about not doing so.

If the home did not adequately provide, and the schools somehow fall short, we have the mental health profession ready to step in. We have therapists and therapies, and if necessary, there are Twelve Steps and lifetime recovery programs. Some people just never seem to grasp that elusive panacea to all of humankind's ills, and might even end up in prison! Surely, the only person who would commit a criminal act is someone who lacks you-know-what.

Yet, most kids don't seem to have self-esteem after all this! Why is this so when this is what we are all working on? Some explain that because parents and educators themselves do not have it, they cannot give it to their children and students. Occasionally, you meet people who seem to have too much self-esteem, inflated egos, and you realize there is something wrong with them, too. So the problem is there is either not enough, or too much. Nobody seems to have figured out how to get exactly what you need. And nobody has figured out how to give kids exactly what they need, but one thing everybody is convinced of is that the key to all problems lies in self-esteem.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Once, while addressing his students in the early seventies, the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that the great challenge of our generation is the feeling of "mi ani u'ma ani," a famous Hebrew term meaning "who am I, and what am I?" People feel deep down, the Rebbe said in tears, that they are worthless, that they don't really exist. Many individuals have a tape recorder constantly going in their minds declaring, mi ani u'ma ani, "I amount to nothing." Every time and any time you have a moment of inspiration, a thought to do a good deed, a thought to change yourself, improve yourself, change your home, improve your life, to contribute more, to do something better, a voice in your head says -- who do you think you are?

When you want to indulge yourself, that question doesn't come up, but when you want to do something positive, you really want to make a strong commitment to something, to a person or a project, the self-doubt tape begins to play. It does not matter what it is, any slight improvement, spurt of growth, any push beyond your comfort zone, anything you want to undertake -- the tape plays.

If for some reason, the voice in your head is not loud enough, at times friends and family will help out. They will all give you messages of -- come on, who do you think you are? You? You are getting all holy, all loving, all spiritual, what is this? They'll often criticize you, or just take the wind out of your sails. Where does this come from, that the whole world is looking for self-esteem, and that they have too much of it for the wrong things and too little of it for the right things?

The Malady Of The Century

The Kabbalah explains that all physical sickness is a manifestation of a spiritual disease, and the physical symptoms mimic the spiritual disorder. The most devastating illness of our time, cancer, is one in which the cells multiply and grow in a way disproportionate to the rest of the body, and overtake the entire organism, until every other organ and every other part of the body is consumed by these cells. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once suggested that this reflects the spiritual malady of our time, which is a distorted, disproportionate sense of self. That when it comes to the wrong things, our self-esteem is too overblown, and when it comes to doing good, the biggest problem we have is "who am I, and what am I?"

So what is happening is that we take our children and try to teach them self-esteem, while some of us overcompensate and others under-compensate. More and more people are going to social work school and becoming psychologists and therapists, and people are saying -- wow, now we have so many counselors, therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists! But no one is getting better. For the most part, everybody seems to be getting worse.

As a whole, although individual people are being helped with individual problems, our problems are getting much, much, worse. More and more people are waiting on line, and more facilities are being opened. The existing organizations are busy and booked, and people are saying, "Why aren't we doing more as a community to have the proper mental health intervention?"

What is the secret behind this phenomenon? Why is it that two hundred and two thousand years ago, it seems, people possessed healthy egos; they believed that their existence was real, and now, in such a progressive and prosperous age, our children are unsure of their very identity?

The answer to this question lies in a better understanding of the generational evolution of Jewish religious theology.

Kabbalah and Hassidism. Why Now?

For over three thousand years, a significant number of Jews lived their lives according to the dictates of the Torah, as explicated by the sages and scholars of each generation. Throughout that period, the study of Kabbalah, or the esoteric dimension of the Torah, also revealed at Sinai, was the province of the spiritual elite. This was by design, with strong admonitions against revealing these teachings to those not deemed worthy. Only since the 14th century, with the spreading of Kabbalah, and even more so since the 18th century, with the advent of the Hassidic movement, have these teachings become available to the masses.

Judaism teaches that there is no such thing as a random event. Surely, there must be a compelling reason for the withholding of these teachings and their subsequent revelation in our times. Many explanations have been given for this phenomenon, yet the discerning student must conclude that they are all facets of one central theme.

The Traditional View Of Religion

One may live a life of piety within the bounds of human self-awareness, guided by Divine moral dictates and commandments. In this traditional view of religion, every person sees himself as an individual who has a private life, which includes many areas of interest and involvement. For a person of faith, part of that life includes obligations to one's Maker. Serving your Maker may be an important part of your life, or a key part of your life, perhaps the most important part of your life ? yet, a part of your life, not your whole life.

If one remembers that the most important thing is not this world, but the World to Come, so that the more energy one puts into one's obligations in this world, the greater are the rewards of the next world, one will conclude that living the moral and religious life is of supreme value. Yet, after all of this, the very "I" of this religious and pious person remains distinct of G-d. We make sacrifices for G-d and His law, but we retain an identity that is ours, not His.

For many people, this was the meaning of Judaism for thousands of years. For many Jews it is still this way. Religion is a lifestyle they undertake in order to live a healthier life, to receive reward in the World to Come or to feel good about themselves. Yet Kabbalah and Hassidism teach that the above description, notwithstanding its merit, lacks the core of Judaism.

What Is Reality?

Kabbalah and Hassidism lay bare the inner workings of creation. In clear terms, they present the radical truth, that all of existence is merely a projection of higher spiritual forces, which in turn are merely rays of Divine emanation. The meaning of the first two commandments, "I am G-d your G-d", and "You shall have no other gods before me," in Jewish mysticism, is not only that there are no other actual gods, besides the Creator. It means there is nothing in existence independent of G-d.

In Kabbalah, the idea of an autonomous world is an illusion. The only authentic reality is G-d, for the entire world is submerged in, and is part of, G-d's reality. The physical piece of bread we consume is not something separate from Him; it is a manifestation of Divine energy. G-d is the reality of every reality. Everything that exists is in truth a reflection of G-dliness, it is only due to His ability to conceal Himself that there are many things that seem to be not-Him, including ourselves. We experience ourselves very intensely as being me and not Him, to the point that people can say He does not exist. G-d is so skillfully concealed, that even though the opposite is true - He exists, and I do not exist independently of Him - I can think that I exist and He does not. Indeed, the root of all selfishness and evil lie in the sense that reality is separate from G-d.

In the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi posits that every thought, word and action of a human being boils down to one issue, is it in tune with the truth of reality or estranged from it.

Every thought can proclaim that the only thing that exists is G-d, or it can indicate that you think there are other things that exist besides Him. Every word either expresses this idea that the only thing that exists is G-d, and we are an extension of His holiness, or else it conveys that you think there are other things in existence. So too for actions you take. Every decision you make is either proclaiming the exclusive existence of G-d, or you are saying, "G-d, You are great and all, but this part of my life and this thing in my life is detached from You. In this space, You don't exist."

This is the foundational idea of all Kabbalah and Hasidism: If G-d does not amount to everything, He amounts to nothing.

The purpose of creation, Kabbalah teaches, was not only that people live moral lives. The goal of creation is rather articulated in the words of the Midrash, "G-d desired a dwelling in the lower realms." G-d desired to reside within the consciousness of each and every one of us. For this we must transcend our innate self-centeredness and acquire a G-d-centered consciousness. We must learn to internalize the truth that the human "I" is merely an extension of the Divine "I." When the Moshiach (Messiah) will come, this consciousness will pervade civilization. Our goal is to lead the world to that state of consciousness.

Yet the transition from the self-oriented model of Judaism to the self-transcendent model of Judaism was a protracted process, both in the microcosm, i.e., in each individual's little world, and more so in the macrocosm of the world at large. Simply put, it takes time to grow up.

Taking Time To Grow Up

The traditional Jewish model for educating young children underscores the complexity of this process. Maimonides, who first codified the full range of Jewish law, offers a concrete plan for effective child rearing. In brief, he says that since a child is inherently a self-centered being, too immature to appreciate higher motives, it is necessary to use reward and punishment as a motivational impetus. Only as the child matures can one slowly teach him about serving G-d out of love and awe, the ultimate stage of growth being a love so intense that one's entire consciousness and awareness is consumed by, and with, G-d. Such a person, states Maimonides, serves without any consideration for self, without any desire for remuneration, "he does the truth because it is the truth." It takes a great deal of maturity and discipline for an individual to make this transition.

So too, it takes a great deal of maturity on the national level to graduate from the self-oriented model of Judaism to the self-transcendent model of Judaism. Maimonides writes explicitly that not every person can achieve this level. In order for such a degree of selfless devotion to become available to the masses, we had to go through a great deal of growing pains. Only after our Creator decided we were ready to use them properly, did G-d see fit to release the secrets of Kabbalah and Hassidism, to help people learn how to see their very "I" and the "I" of existence as a continuum of the Divine "I."

The reason that destiny made this literature available to progressively larger audiences is because as history progresses, these same audiences are ready to transcend their petty self-centered lives, and become "dwellings" for G-d. This is the true significance of the statement in the Zohar that in the time immediately prior to the coming of Moshiach, "even little children will know these teachings." If even little children, in our times, are able to experience G-d-centered consciousness, obviously, we have to reconsider the traditional approach to education.

G-d Esteem, Not Self-Esteem

This, I posit, is the root behind the educational crisis of today. It has nothing to do with if we have too much or not enough self-esteem. The whole problem is self-esteem. We have reached the point in history when we are supposed to teach our children how to have G-d-esteem, not self-esteem. We need to stop viewing our children as physical egotistical creatures attempting to inculcate them with some moral standards. Our children are living in a new age. Deep inside, they are waiting to be treated as G-dly human beings, as young people who are one with G-d. For this, we must change ourselves, not our children.

Parents say you cannot expect that much from today's kids, it's not what it used to be, today you have to make more compromises, make it easier on the kids, because their selves are far more fragile. And it's true that their selves are more fragile. Why? Because we are teaching them about a "self" that is not real to them. We are teaching our children to embrace a shallow, superficial, and skin-deep sense of self, which they themselves feel isn't real. The time has come when G-d is asking us to make the final preparations for, and put the finishing touches on, His "dwelling". Our egos are so fragile because we are not supposed to have egos anymore. We are supposed to have G-dly souls, not egotistical selves.

But we're still using the old system of: there's me and my ego, G-d and his commandments, and how do I fit G-d and His commandments with me and my ego. How much of my ego do I give up for G-d and how of much of my ego do I not give up for Him. That has always been the struggle, but it's not working anymore. This is the time before Moshiach, and when Moshiach comes, there will not be a conflict between your ego and Hashem's "ego," because it will be revealed that your own being is a manifestation of G-d in this world. There will not be any conflict because it will be obvious that you are one with G-d.

Man In Search Of Identity

So are we too little or too big? Do we have too much self-esteem or too little of it?

The answer is both. Because if we are for ourselves, then we will be big when we are supposed to be small, and little when we are supposed to be great. Yet, we are living in a time when we can no longer tolerate experiencing ourselves as separate from G-d. When we experience ourselves as separate from G-d, we fall apart physically, emotionally and psychologically, because the world is changing, becoming progressively more of a "dwelling" for G-d. G-d only dwells where the "self" does not get in the way. We are living in a time when "even little children will know these teachings," as the Zohar puts it. Even a child, the classic example of a self-centered, self-absorbed being, is ready for the ultimate reality, one in which everyone and everything realizes that nothing exists outside of G-d.

In the sixties and seventies, everyone became concerned about finding themselves, and today people are still trying to find themselves. Even psychologists and so-called experts are walking out on families and marriages because they have to go find themselves. However, no one, it seems, is succeeding in finding anything worthwhile, because there is nothing to find. They are looking for something that does not really exist. The real "I" is a manifestation of the Divine "I". Where do you get the tools to look and discover that dimension of self? Torah, Kabbalah and Hassidism are the tools to find your real self.

So the whole problem is not too much or too little self-esteem, but that there is a concept of self-esteem altogether! If I learn that my true identity and existence is a manifestation of G-d, then I can do anything. Because I am a divine being with a divine mission, and given divine powers, there is no question of "who am I and what am I." But if I am separate from G-d, I look in the mirror and see nothingness.

A New Model For Education

So instead of the old model of subjugating the ego to G-d's will, educate children not to have an ego, for the only thing that exists is their identity as part of G-d. We are not supposed to be teaching children anymore how to get their egos to submit to G-d. We are supposed to teach that egos on their truest and deepest level are one with G-d. The detached ego is a thing of the past, history, irrelevant. There are no extraneous selves -- there is only G-d. And that's the ultimate self.

Our minds immediately reject this because we think it's not practical. Yet, look at what is happening to people. We continue trying to appeal to the baser instincts of our children, through bribery and praise, because it is the only thing we know, that we are familiar with, so we keep doing it even though we know it's impractical and it doesn't work. Then they refuse to outgrow their self-absorption, fueling the newest phenomenon of "adult children." We also discover at some point that they have problems with self-esteem and unhealthy egos. Would you like to hazard a guess whose fault the family shrink says it is?

The fact is, there is no such thing as a healthy ego! It does not exist in the world today. If you ask the biggest experts to point out people with healthy egos, they cannot. Everybody is chasing the healthy ego, which nobody has, and there are all kinds of experts on how to have a healthy ego and they don't have it either. They are sometimes crazier than everybody else. We must create a paradigm shift in our approach to education. Our children cannot tolerate living with our false selves anymore.

Application Of The New Model

What this means in real-life terms is that when you communicate with your children, you are doing one of two things:

1) Teaching that the child is a separate existence from G-d, and the way you give that message is when you tell him to do something he doesn't want to do, when you do anything unpleasant to him, and you blame it on G-d. That is how many parents do it - G-d only comes into the picture when you want to explain to the child why you are doing things to the child that he doesn't appreciate. You say, "because you have to", "because G-d said so." It's G-d's fault.

Even if you do it in positive ways by saying G-d is so great and He does all these great things for us, the message inherent in all those statements is that there is Him and there is us, and He does those so many nice things for us. It is part of our way of talking. We seem to set G-d aside, where He occupies a separate realm in the heavens, conveying the sense that we are separate and He occupies a higher existence.

The message we have to absorb ourselves, and communicate to our children, is:

2) We are approaching a time in which G-d's reality will be manifest, and we have to start living that way now. Do we actually perceive this truth with our own eyes? Not yet. However, that is where history is going and we ought to start preparing ourselves, and especially the children, who are far more receptive, to live with this reality now.

Try it, you may be surprised by the results. Do not underestimate your children. They are ready for truths that defy our exile-like imagination and mentality.

[This essay is based on a number of talks presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe during the years 1991-1992, on the theme of education.]