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Loving Yourself to Love Others

Loving Yourself to Love Others


So often in my practice, I see women who don’t recognize the need to love and take care of themselves. The young mother who goes the entire day without eating because she’s “too busy nursing and feeding her baby” to prepare food for herself. The teenager who is constantly preoccupied with the need to “lose those five pounds” in order to feel like she fits in with her friends. The busy career woman who has “no time to exercise, no time to stop or breathe, let aloneShe lost her social status in the community think” because her day is full of clients and meetings. The woman who juggles work, family and community responsibilities, afraid to ask for help, lest the world know that she’s not perfect—and so she juggles until she drops a ball. Women who don’t sleep properly, don’t eat properly, don’t exercise properly. Women who have no time or energy to pray or go to an uplifting class. Beautiful, lovely women who spend their entire day giving and doing for everyone but themselves . . .

The Talmud describes a famous love story between a poor, unlearned shepherd named Akiva, and Rachel, the beautiful, intelligent daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Israel. When Rachel married Akiva, Rachel’s father disowned her; she lost her social status in the community; she lost her friends and her neighbors. I’m sure that all this pained Rachel a great deal, but given the fact that Rachel stayed loyal to Akiva and was extremely supportive of him, she must have had a strong sense of self-esteem. As much as her neighbors tried to destroy her, Rachel stood firm.

When they were first married, Rachel encouraged her 40-year-old husband to go to school. Now, we’re not talking about encouraging someone with a college degree to return for an advanced degree. We’re not even talking about encouraging someone with a high-school diploma to go to a trade school. Akiva had never been to school. He didn’t even know how to read. With Rachel’s encouragement, he went to school to learn the alef-beit. Imagine a 40-year-old man sitting with preschoolers. A pretty funny sight, no? The children laughed at Akiva, and he came home discouraged.

What did Rachel do? The Midrash1 tells us that she put pots of dirt on her donkey, and planted seeds inside the pots. Every day she watered the pots until a little garden grew on the donkey’s back. When the plants were fully grown, she turned to Akiva and asked, “Can you please go to the market and buy us some flour? I ran out.”

He went toHe returned thoroughly embarrassed the market with the donkey. Everyone who passed by laughed when they saw the donkey, and mocked Akiva. He returned home thoroughly embarrassed. The next day, Rachel said, “Akiva, we are out of lentils. Please go buy some.” He didn’t want to go back to the market with the donkey, but she insisted. Every day Rachel would find a new reason to send Akiva back to the market with the silly-looking donkey. The children mocked, the women stared, the men laughed and jeered. But each day the mocking, the staring, the laughing and the jeering lessened. By wintertime, no one even gave the funny-looking donkey a second thought, as they had become accustomed and indifferent to the sight.

“Hmmm,” thought Akiva. “No one even cares anymore.” He reflected on this, and with the encouragement and blessing of his wife, he went back to school. At first the children laughed at the old man cramming his legs into the little desk, but soon they became accustomed to the sight, and the laughing stopped. Rabbi Akiva stayed in school, and then went off to study in the great centers of learning for 24 years, becoming one of the most esteemed and famous scholars of all time. When he returned home with his 24,000 students, he stood before them and said: “Everything I have (all my learning and insights and teaching) is because of her (Rachel); all you have (from being my pupils) is because of her.”

And what is Rabbi Akiva’s most famous teaching? That an absolutely fundamental principle of the Torah is to “Love your fellow as yourself.” How can you love your fellow? By loving yourself first! Through Rachel, Rabbi Akiva learned that the way to love and be close to another is by first loving and respecting yourself. If there is no self-love—no recognition of the beautiful and holy spark within—there’s no way you can truly love or give to another.

If you don’t feed yourself, take care of yourself, know your physical limitations, you simply won’t have what to give. I tell new mothers, “You need to eat and to sleep in order to take care of yourKnow your physical limitations baby.” The taking care of and loving of oneself is actually a prerequisite for all that we do, not an impediment.

A person who always worries about what others are thinking, a person who bases her feelings of self-worth on superficialities, will never be happy with herself—and she’ll then have a hard time being happy with those around her. She won’t be able to appreciate all the beauty and holiness that G‑d has created her with, and this will affect her ability to see the goodness within her fellow.

I tell my clients—and myself—“Value yourself! Accept yourself! Grow and learn from challenges and mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up over them. Be kind to yourself! Love yourself!”

Love your fellow as yourself, but first love yourself!

Midrash HaGadol, Exodus 4:68.
Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist, writer, and author of Dancing Through Life, a book for Jewish women. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Fro August 10, 2016

Simply profound Reply

Anonymous Dunmore May 27, 2016

Water to my body and Food for my Soul! Reply

Anonymous May 26, 2016

I'm moved by your article. Great read and G-d bless you. Reply

Anonymous May 26, 2016

Excellent and well said! Thanks for posting! Reply

Anonymous Toronto May 26, 2016

Contradiction The idea of a woman taking care of herself is amazing but unfortunately in this story, the woman, Rachel, is taking care of Akiva and he (the male) is the one that "takes care of himself" thanks to Rachel, and she probably doesn't end up taking care of herself in order to look after his needs. The story doesn't make sense because of the contradiction that it's supposed to be about a woman taking care of herself but it's just another example of a woman giving up everything to not take care of herself because thanks to her giving up everything, he takes care of himself! I don't get it but thanks for sharing. Reply

Anonymous Lawrenceville May 25, 2016

Self-perception Very nice article. Putting on on a few pounds is extremely attractive, healthy and prosperous! It is good for the baby, who needs a strong mother. Adipose tissue makes muscles also, brings shine to the face and enhances aura. It does attract attention. Reply

Arline P West Long Branch, NJ May 25, 2016

An Important Article Thanks so much for this! I have spent most of my 50+ years doing the opposite of this; I am so caught up in handling everyone else's needs that I completely forget about my own... Reply

Jonathan Chiswell Jones. Sussex UK May 25, 2016

Thank you for this article- I am neither a woman, nor a jew, but I can understand the wisdom of your words- they are universal in their application. Let him who has ears to hear, hear. Reply

Anonymous CA May 25, 2016

Many times after someone passes away, people have so many positive things to say about them. Including things like "he always gave to others, putting himself completely aside", etc.
During their lifetime we say it's not the right thing to do - to put yourself completely aside for someone else. But after they pass away, suddenly it becomes something admirable?
How does that work? Reply

anonymous ottawa ottawa May 24, 2016

Excellent parable. These are wonderful stories and lessons. Thank you. Reply

Racheli Metal Las Vegas May 22, 2016

Important to read again and again! Well put Elana! Thank you. Reply