Feelings of inadequacy
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Shlach is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
When I was a communal rabbi, I felt for many years that I was kind of playing a role that wasn’t actually mine. Sure, I knew I was doing my job well, and got positive feedback from the congregation and others. But somehow, I often felt like a fraud.
The better I got at playing the role, and the more I saw that others appreciated what I did, the more I felt like a fake. How could someone like me actually be a rabbi? Would someone come along at some point and unmask me, like the ending of every Scooby Doo episode?
It was not only when I was a congregational rabbi. But also when I was a teacher, a translator, an author, a journalist, and just about everything else I’ve ever done, there were times I felt like a fraud.
I know now that this feeling, of doubting one’s skills, accomplishments and talents, is known by psychologists (and pop psychologists) as “imposter syndrome.” And it is very common. It has been estimated that 70% of people will feel imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. The insecurity that leads to imposter syndrome can be triggered by the low self-confidence that comes with being thrust into a new environment or role.
Part of coping with this syndrome is understanding how prevalent it is. If you feel like you are out of place, don’t worry, so does just about everyone else.
In this week’s parsha, Shelach, Moshe sends 12 spies into Canaan, to report back to the rest of the nation about the land they were about to enter. These were no ordinary people. The Torah describes them as, “All were men who were the heads of the Children of Israel,” (Bamidbar 13:3). They were important people and respected by the members of their respective tribes.
Yet it seems to me that almost all of them also suffered from imposter syndrome. When they returned, ten of them told the people, “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes,” (13:33) – and they assumed that was how the people of Canaan also saw them.
They were the greatest people of their generation, yet they thought they were merely grasshoppers, not worthy of the roles they had been asked to play.
Relationship with G-d
If someone doesn’t have a good relationship with themselves, they also can’t have a proper relationship with G-d. When the spies reported back to the people, they described accurately all the wonderful qualities of Israel. But then they added in the single word “efes” – “nothing,” (13:28). They implied that God (and the nation) did not have the power to conquer the strong nations living in Canaan. These 10 leaders thought of themselves as nothing, and they therefore thought the same of God.
We understand why the spies may have had imposter syndrome – they were new to the role of leader, had never been spies before, and if they had brought back good testimony, would have entered a foreign land where they would have felt even more like frauds. We understand why they doubted God – how could they not, when they doubted themselves?
However, it was this feeling of inadequacy which doomed the nation to spend 40 years in the desert. They could not enter the land until a new generation had grown up who felt secure in itself and thought it was worthy to enter the land.
A little bit of humility and self-doubt are not a bad thing. But we should also remember that if others see us as appropriate for a role, we are probably worthy of it. And once we can believe in ourselves, it will strengthen our belief in God.