Friday, July 6, 2012

One Direction and the Talmud: What Makes You Beautiful

THE GROUP "ONE DIRECTION", put together by Simon Cowell on X-factor, is a throwback to the good old days of the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync: young, handsome boys with nice voices. The “teeny boppers” can't get enough of them or their new hit song, “What Makes You Beautiful,” which is arguably more shallow than Jepsen's song “Call Me Maybe.”


One may think that culling a worthwhile lesson from this song is virtually impossible. But the wonderful thing about Judaism is that you can always find meaning in the sacred as well as in the supremely mundane. Indeed, this song contains a critical message about the self.

In this piece, the boys address a girl they find attractive; in fact her beauty mesmerizes everyone whenever she “walks through the door.” She doesn't even need to wear makeup “to cover up”. Moreover, the way she “flips her hair” simply overwhelms them (yes, very shallow indeed). But though she dazzles them with her looks, they are surprised to find that she is “insecure” and “shy”. They try picking up her spirits, but she continues to “smile at the ground” without acknowledging her worth.

One should not diagnose this girl's behavior as a bad case of humility, for the humblest of people do not lack self-esteem. Could Moses have possibly led the Jewish people out of the pangs of Egypt and through the desert if he didn't believe in his abilities? Would young David have been able to slay Goliath if he didn't believe in himself? Of course not! Leaders of their caliber are capable of remaining down to earth while recognizing that their qualities and strengths are unmatched and unrivaled.


This girl is sorely lacking self-confidence, an essential trait for vibrant and healthy living that on the outside is often masked as humility, but on the inside is as different as night and day. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud maintain that confidence and belief in the self is a necessary component of Judaism. “Each person” they explain, “is required to believe that the world was created just for me.” I understand that to convey the idea that each person was placed on earth for a divine purpose and with unique qualities. While we mustn't brag or flaunt our God given talents and attributes, we must nevertheless live confidently and pridefully.

It is for this reason that I have difficulty with a well known teaching of the great Rabbi Bunim of P'shischa, who asked his students to always carry two pieces of paper with them, one in each pocket. The first paper contained the statement of Abraham, “I am but dust and ash,” a reminder to always be humble, while the second paper had the rabbinic teaching that “the world was created for me.” The challenge, he explained, was knowing when to utilize one over the other. To me, self-confidence and humility are not competing forces, they are complementary values that when used properly are the tools to living wholesome and fulfilling lives.

For most of us, remaining sure of ourselves while being modest is a difficult balancing act, but one that we can navigate on our own with moderate success. However, there are those individuals, such as this girl, that are not endowed with a healthy dose self-esteem; who are insecure and often struggle with depression. It is my fervent hope and prayer that they find the strength to overcome their weakness by turning to God for divine assistance and through supportive friends and family that can lift up their spirits and raise their morale. 'If you could only see what I could see,' you would know what makes you beautiful, inside and out.


Rabbi Joshua Hess is a rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He blogs for the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @rabbihess.