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Puffed Up

How important is ego? We need to have some self-esteem if we are to be productive, to perform well, to achieve. Or so the popular wisdom believes. A number of experiments, however, have demonstrated that good performance hinges not so much on self-esteem as a lack of self-consciousness: i.e. not paying very much attention to yourself at all.

For example, in one experiment, two groups of people were given a challenging task to perform. One group was first given a “pep talk” to boost self-esteem. They were told that they were selected to perform this task because they had shown themselves to be bright and capable. The other group was not given this introduction; they went straight to the task. Surprisingly, the group that received the pep talk performed less well than the group that had no introduction at all.

In another experiment, a group of people were all given a test to measure self-esteem, and the high scorers and low scorers were put into separate groups to perform a challenging activity. They were then given some mild criticism and again given a challenging task to perform. The group that showed high self-esteem were negatively affected by the criticism and performed poorly the second time around, while the low self-esteem group had no change.

What do these experiments show? In the first, the “pep talk” actually had the effect of making the participants focus too much on themselves; it made them feel anxious about their performance, which led to a poorer outcome. The “no pep talk” group focused simply on the task at hand, and performed better.

In the second experiment, the “high self-esteem” group took a greater hit after receiving mild criticism than the low self-esteem group did. A common saying goes, “You cannot be deflated if you were never inflated to begin with.”

On Pesach, we are commanded to avoid all traces of chametz – leavened bread. Both bread and matzah are made from the same ingredients, flour and water. However, the bread dough is allowed to rise, become puffed up, while the matzah remains flat.

Why is it so important to avoid chametz during the week of Pesach? Chametz represents ego, inflated self-esteem. The flat matzah represents humility. When the Jews left Egypt, they were just beginning their journey to worship G-d. They needed to focus solely on their objective, which was to reach Mount Sinai and accept the Torah. Any thought of themselves, any self-consciousness or self-regard, would have hampered them in their ability to achieve their goal. To receive the Torah, they needed to let go of their own egos entirely, to give themselves over completely to G-d.

Similarly, during the final Redemption, Moshiach will be famed for his humility. He will teach us how to attain this level in our own service of G-d. In this way we will be fitting vessels to receive the great revelation of the “New Torah” which Moshiach will reveal.



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