You may have heard the expression, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It’s a common phrase that means to succeed by the merit of your own efforts. The “self-made man” that so many strive to be is the one who “pulled himself up by the bootstraps.”

But if you think about it, the phrase doesn’t make any sense, because it’s physically impossible. Try it.

The irony is that the modern usage of the phrase is, in fact, a corruption of its original meaning. Etymologist Barry Popik and linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer have cited an American newspaper snippet from Sept. 30, 1834, as the earliest published reference to lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps. A month earlier, a man named Nimrod Murphree announced in the Nashville Banner that he had “discovered perpetual motion.” The Mobile Advertiser picked up this tidbit and published it with a snarky response ridiculing his claim: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barnyard fence, by the straps of his boots.”1

Apparently, when first used, it was a snarky remark meant to describe something demonstrably absurd.

How the phrase morphed into the very opposite meaning is anyone’s guess, but for today’s instruction, we’ll run with the original meaning.

The Missing White Knight

The Torah portion of Behar teaches the laws pertaining to one who voluntarily sells himself into slavery. Of course, giving away one’s agency is a grievous matter, so the Torah prescribes the method in which his relative can come to the rescue and redeem him:

After he is sold, he shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him. Or his uncle or his cousin shall redeem him, or the closest [other] relative from his family shall redeem him; or, if he becomes able to afford it, he can be redeemed [on his own].2

The curious thing is that when listing off which family members can be the white knight, the list begins with the brother and extends out from there. But what about the father? Shouldn’t he be the first family member to rescue his own son?

Another question: Why is the option of self-redemption only mentioned as the last resort? Shouldn’t that be the first option? You can redeem yourself, and only when that’s impossible, do others step in. Why leave the protagonist out of the picture until the very end?

When Dad Is Cut Out

According to the Midrash,3 the verse speaks of someone who is not only in dire financial condition, but spiritually deficient as well. You see, chapter 25 of Leviticus begins with the laws of Shemitah, then discusses one who greedily breaks the Shemitah laws, and concludes with our discussion about the person who sells themselves into slavery. The Midrash expounds that the entire chapter speaks about the same person: First, he violates Shemitah, and so, he is punished by losing his wealth. The matter evolves until he’s eventually compelled to sell himself into slavery.

In other words, our protagonist is not just a guy who fell on hard times, but someone who is in a spiritually bad place. As such, it can be said that he lacks a “father”—his Father in Heaven. By sinning and perpetuating the cycle of spiritual downfall, this person has cut himself away from his true Father.

It is now obvious why the verse doesn’t speak about the father redeeming him, for his own actions have made it such that he currently doesn’t have a Father. If he really maintained that relationship with his Father, he never would have been subjected to such abject slavery in the first place.

You Can’t Pull Yourself Up by Your Own Bootstraps

Now that we understand our protagonist as a spiritually struggling son, it is easy to understand why self-redemption is only mentioned as the last option.

When you’re down in the dumps and trapped in a negative spiral—so much so that it can be said that you no longer even have a Father—then you can’t climb out of it yourself.

The Talmud4 famously states, “A prisoner cannot free themselves.” It’s really a simple idea: If you’re handcuffed, you can’t open the cuffs on your own. You need someone else to do it.

This truth isn’t limited to law enforcement. It applies to all areas of life. If you’re trapped in a certain paradigm, a certain negative groove, you simply cannot climb out of it on your own.

Think about people who are in toxic relationships or are trapped in cycles of addiction, or your friend who’s been dieting their whole life. They try to get away from the abusive partner, to quit the substance, or go keto for a month—and then they get trapped in it all over again. It seems they just cannot do it alone.

Often, the best thing is to get someone else on board. In the language of our verse, to get one of your relatives to redeem you.

Get help. Seek advice, speak to a mentor or a friend who can give you an objective assessment about yourself and advise a pathway out. If you’re really lucky, they’ll help you along the way and make sure you don’t get trapped in the straps of your own boots.

Many people make this mistake. They are blessed with sufficient self-awareness to recognize they have a problem, but they mistakenly think that that same self-awareness will help them solve that same problem.

It’s an excusable thought pattern, but it is unhelpful. It simply doesn’t work that way, much like you can’t jump any higher by pulling your own hair.

So be mature enough to not only recognize the mistake, but to seek help to correct it. There’s no shame in that. There’s maturity in that recognition, so go ahead and strap your boots to someone else’s and be pulled up, up, and away.5