The Impostor Syndrome: A Shabbat Message From Rabbi Dr. Kobrin

My first year as a teacher I kept waiting for everyone – my students, their parents, my principal – to realize that I had fooled them all; I actually had no idea what I was doing. I know people who had similar feelings when they first became parents: we’re just faking this, and one day we’ll get caught and they’ll take this baby away from us.

The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, famously points to two “fakers” in this week’s parasha of Shemini: the pig, who eats with his hooves proudly pushed forward while hiding his face, and the camel, who eats with his head up but with his hooves folded underneath his body. This is because even though the camel is ruminant, it “chews its cud,” it is shosa’at shesa, it does not have split hooves – so it hides its feet. The pig, on the other hand, has split hooves (it is mafreset parsa) but because it does not chew its cud, it eats with its feet out and its mouth hidden.

When do we feel like impostors? “Why do you dress me in borrow’d robes?” demands Macbeth from Angus and Ross in the first act of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Macbeth is uncomfortable when called Thane of Cawdor, a title he has not earned. We feel weird when others ascribe qualities to us that we feel we don’t really possess. Is it ever okay to feel this way?

At the start of the parasha, Moshe asks his brother Aharon to approach the altar, kerav el ha-mizbe’ach, to offer korbanot that would atone for himself and for the people. Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains that Aharon must have been far away from the altar if Moshe had to tell him to come close. Aharon was ashamed of his role in making the Golden Calf, writes Rashi. Moshe told him: “Why are you ashamed? It was for this that you were chosen.” Moshe thus worked to cure Aharon’s impostor syndrome. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that Moshe understood this because he too had suffered the impostor syndrome: his speech impediment made him feel like he was unworthy to lead the people. But this was why he was chosen: people understood that when Moshe spoke, some greater power spoke through him. “The point,” a friend of mine wrote this week, “is not the acceptance of weakness, it is the struggle. Moshe and Aharon, in their different ways, had to struggle before reaching personal acceptance.”

We and our kids can all have moments of feeling inadequate, like pigs or camels — or like impostors. These feelings can bring us down, or they can give us moments from which to learn and grow. Moshe’s faith in and encouragement of Aharon enabled Aharon to rise to the occasion, to get over his feeling like an impostor. As parents, our role can be to provide similar encouragement (which should always be grounded in reality) for our kids. If we do so the right way, we can help turn their moments of doubt into moments of growth – and turn their weaknesses into strengths.

Shabbat shalom.