Nearly a hundred years before the Human Potential Movement began in the late 1960s, The Alter of Slabodka (Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l) taught us about the greatness of man, gadlus ha’adam. This concept revolutionized Jewish education by introducing a new angle to motivating students, one that bred scores of Gedolei Yisrael and uplifted an entire generation of Jewish youth.

The Slabodka Educational Approach

The Alter wanted us to understand how “big” we truly are through realizing our boundless importance in Hashem’s eyes. He explained that each of us is “Hashem’s handiwork” (Zohar 2:70) and that “the entire world was created for us” (Sanhedrin 37a). If we would comprehend this fundamental truth, he reasoned, we would be sho’ef l’gadlus, yearn for greatness, and not settle for mediocrity in our learning and character refinement. And even were we never to reach our fullest potential, we would achieve great heights trying.

The Alter’s educational philosophy was instrumental in training the minds of Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, and Rav Yaakov Ruderman, just to name a few. No more proof is needed to attest to the efficacy of the gadlus ha’adom philosophy. What the Alter intuitively understood, and which modern psychology has subsequently shown, is that how we see ourselves matters and that building students from a place of positivity can motivate them to achieve greatness.

Unintended Consequences

There are, however, potential negative side effects of the gadlus ha’adom approach. For many, especially (but not limited to) those of us with preexisting perfectionistic leanings, the message of embracing the bigness that is our birthright can slowly morph into a focus on something we feel we must achieve, rather than a natural drive for what suits us. This subtle shift from “befitting” to “obligated” can be hugely consequential. It signals a move away from what is appropriate for us in favor of an insistence upon what is demanded of us. 

This form of motivation can derive from “the tyranny of the should,” where we feel immensely driven but not quite the driver. We push ourselves forward because we know we have to, yet we lose the joy that is inherent within growth done right.

Furthermore, overly focusing on a potential version of ourselves can create a gap between the person I will one day be and the not-good-enough person I am today (a version of this critique was voiced by Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook zt”l). The tiny voice that says “you’re falling short” nags us every day at first, reminding us that we are still behind what we are supposed to become. Eventually, this daily reminder of our shortcomings can transform into an oppressive internal critic, constantly reminding us of the failure we are for not living up to our potential. 

In order to escape this harsh self-critique, we may find ourselves pushing forward well beyond our limits, trying to catch up to the vision of who we are meant to be. This unrelenting chase quickly becomes a vicious cycle – we run after gadlus, inevitably fail to reach it, beat ourselves up, yell at ourselves to work harder, and rev up our engines to try yet again.

This tumultuous internal struggle is certainly not what the Alter had in mind. The Alter meant to build us up, not generate feelings that cut us down. So what are we missing? What was the secret that the talmidim of Slabodka understood that eludes many of us today?

Small Before Big

The answer is that in order to be big one must first know how to be small. Being “small” means not needing to be more than I am right now in order to feel good about the work I am doing. It means embracing the person I am today even though I am not a finished product and still have further to go in my personal development. It means accepting myself, meeting myself exactly where I am in this moment, and focusing on taking just one step in my learning and character refinement.

If being “big” means broadening our scope to include more than we currently see in ourselves, being “small” means narrowing our focus to what lies before us today and feeling that it is enough just to do the next right thing.

Humility is a prerequisite to being small. Humble people are not focused on where they will end up; they care much more about doing what they are called upon to do right now, and doing it well. Humility enables us to grow from exactly the place we are at, because we realize that we are good enough today to do so.

The Talmidim of Slabodka

The Alter’s students had no problem learning for the sake of learning, without any fanfare, sometimes with just a chavrusa and a sefer, and without any promise of what would become of them in the future. The historical account we have paints a picture of a group of young students learning in relative obscurity because they understood the inherent value of what they were doing. They didn’t need others to know about their learning and growth; it was completely between them and Hashem. It was built from the inside, from the ground up. They studied and served Hashem because it was emes and because they loved it, and they would have continued doing it even had no one ever discovered the great people they really were. 

They were content being small, being exactly who they were in that moment, not because it was a great maaleh, but because they didn’t need more than that. It was enough for them, and they were enough while doing it. And so, because they had no problem being small, they went on to become big.

The Alter was right that we must realize our immense value in Hashem’s eyes. Especially in our time, with depression on the rise and many people struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and doubts about self-worth, we need to know that Hashem believes in us and views our lives as incredibly important. We truly can achieve great things. 

Yet it is essential that this positive self-perception be built upon a healthy foundation of self-acceptance and humility. All bigness must be rooted in smallness. We must first learn to appreciate ourselves as we are before training our focus on what we can become.

Even as we yearn to accomplish greater goals, we cannot get ahead of ourselves by neglecting to appreciate the value in what we are doing today. This is why we hear stories of great leaders who retreat periodically from public life in order to reconnect with the experience of being “small,” of learning without fanfare, thinking without needing to share it, and performing acts of kindness that are motivated purely by the desire to do the right thing in this moment.

Big and Small Together

As in so many areas of life, we are tasked with balancing two competing values simultaneously. To be mindful that we are already enough while also searching for ways to become more. To hold on to an appreciation of who we are now while also keeping an eye on where we are going. To carry ourselves with humility while also not forgetting the immense contribution we can make. This is what it means to be big and small at the same time. Living with this paradox is no easy task, yet it is one that rings true to us.

In our times it is difficult for us to handle being small, to remain unknown, to pursue emes for its own sake, and to keep things just between us and Hashem. Everything we do is instantly “out there.” We publicize ourselves, and even when we don’t, it is done for us by others. We are so used to living online and in the public sphere that our ability to tolerate activities that are small and private has diminished. Yet the only way to build a solid foundation within ourselves, one upon which we can become “big” the way the Alter intended, is to look within, not without. It turns out that we can aspire to be big only after we have mastered the art of being small.

Life Lessins is a blog about mental health from a Jewish perspective. It is a collection of insights culled from 15 years of experience as a mental health professional working within a religious context.

My aim in expressing these perspectives is to share, enrich, educate, and engage in an ongoing conversation with the broader community.

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