Would you consider yourself a self-aware person? Do you really see yourself clearly? Do you recognize your skills, talents, strengths, weaknesses, values, aspirations, reactions, patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, how you impact others, and how others view you?
Dr. Tasha Eurich notes that 95% of people think they are self-aware, while the research indicates that only around 15% are adequately self-aware. “That means,” she quips, that “on a good day, about 80 percent of people are lying about themselves—to themselves.”
In her book, “Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think,” Dr. Eurich summarizes the research on the benefits of being part of the 15% who are actually self-aware:
[Self-aware people] are happier. Make smarter decisions. They have better personal and professional relationships. They raise more mature children. They’re smarter, superior students who choose better careers. They’re more creative, confident, and better communicators. They’re less aggressive and less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. They’re better performers at work who get more promotions. They’re more effective leaders with more enthusiastic employees. They even lead more profitable companies.
As Pirkei Avot is primarily about personal growth and self-improvement, having awareness of who we are and therefore what we need to improve, is essential. In fact, Dr. Eurich notes that “[i]n the Jewish faith, self-knowledge has been called ‘the prerequisite to any self-improvement,’” a translated quote from Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s noted work of Mussar, Alei Shur.
In the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Baraita lists forty-eight traits that assist in the acquisition of Torah wisdom, one of which is “binat ha-lev.” Rabbi Noach Weinberg translates this literally as “to understand the heart” (and not as “understanding of the heart,” which has a slightly different connotation). The heart symbolizes our inner lives. “To understand your heart,” Rabbi Weinberg writes, “is to understand your true inner self.”
There are many components to self-awareness, and as we continue to learn Pirkei Avot together, we will explore several strategies to improve various aspects of our self-awareness. We will start with the most concrete and identifiable aspects of our true inner selves: our talents and skills.
The Mishna (Avot 3:4) states in the name of Rabbi Elazar of Bartota that we should “give to Him of that which is His, for you and that which is yours is His.” Many commentaries understand this as a message about charity. Make sure to give charity, because all of your material possessions really belong to God. In a creative alternative reading, Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, in his commentary Tiferet Yisrael, understands the Mishna not as a message of material possessions, but about personal attributes;
“if God graces you with a particular strength, for example, wealth, physical strength, wisdom, memory, a pleasant voice, and the like, offer it to God, utilizing it for the purposes of holiness.”
We can often fall into the trap of looking at the service of God as being a routinized, de-personalized experience that should be copied and pasted from one person to another. Yet, Rabbi Lipschitz suggests that it is essential that we are aware of our own personal talents and skills and use them to serve God in our unique ways.
Here are some questions to help recognize your skills and talents. (You can think broadly in terms of what can be included in the list.)
What do you enjoy doing? Where do you excel? What comes easy to you? Which activities give you the greatest sense of pride and satisfaction? What do people tell you that you are good at?
Once you have identified some possibilities, take Rabbi Lipschitz’s advice, and think how you could use these skills and talents to serve God in your own unique and personalized way.