This room is filled with many accomplished people; there are those who are accomplished professionally, some who are accomplished morally – people look up to them as role models, others who are accomplished socially – they’re exceptionally popular. There is a lot of expertise in this room. But guess what?
Statistically, about 70% of the people in this room experience something called imposter syndrome. What that means is that they feel like they are an imposter, a fake, a fraud. That one day someone will catch them. That one day their coworkers, friends, or family will corner them and yell, “Busted! We know who you are! And you are not as good as everyone makes you out to be!” 7 out of every ten people in this room have that nightmare. Maybe not with the same details, but you know what I mean…
We took two Torahs out today; one was Parshas Terumah, which Riley read, and the other was Parshas Zachor, which was read by Avri. The reason Avri read the second section is because that reading is considered to be the only Biblically mandated Torah reading we do the entire year. Because of that it has to be read by someone older than Bar Mitzvah. This is the only section that is a Biblical Mitzvah to read, it must be really important. Right? What’s it about?
It’s about an enemy nation. A nomadic tribe called Amaleik who attack the Jews as they leave Egypt. We are told that there is an eternal battle against this nation. Which is hard to understand because we don’t really know who this nation is in 2021. They are lost to the dustbin of history. So what relevance does this passage have to me and you?
The mystical commentators point out that the name of this nation is a contraction of two words – Amal, which means ‘toil’ Kof which means … ‘of a monkey.’ The toil of a monkey. That’s the idea that Amaleik represents. What does this mean? Well, what do we know about monkeys? Monkey see, monkey do. Monkeys are known to imitate; to just perform external actions. In other words, they are imposters. What this nation Amaleik represents to us in 2021 is that voice inside of us that tells us, “This ain’t you. You are not as good/ as talented/ as kind as everyone thinks you are. You’re just a good faker. You’re nothing but a monkey.”
Imposter syndrome is not just a nightmare, it has terrible consequences. It causes people to downplay their accomplishments and avoid feedback. It prevents people from asking for help, causes people to refuse new opportunities, fail to start or finish projects, and overwork themselves to the point of burnout. That battle against Amaleik is certainly still relevant.
So how do you defeat it? How do you overcome imposter syndrome, this modern day manifestation of Amaleik?
The Torah has a fascinating approach to dealing with imposter syndrome, and with the nation of Amaleik. We are taught that the way Amaleik is defeated is by remembering Amaleik. Not by forgetting them and erasing their memory from this earth. It’s the opposite. After all, this is Parshas Zachor – the Shabbos of remembering Amaleik! Remember what they did to you! Remember what they still do to you!
Because you see, imposter syndrome for all of its negative impact, also has a positive; a big one. In one study, doctors who reported more imposter syndrome-related thoughts had better bed-side manner than their peers. They collaborated better with others and were more empathetic.
One possible explanation is that people who experience imposter syndrome are more self-aware. They know that who they project is not who they are. Those are two separate things for better or for worse. The world may think I’m the greatest, but I know I could be better. The world may judge me by my mistakes, but they are not who I am.
To live with imposter syndrome is to live with a deep knowledge that we operate on two levels; internally there is a world of wants, aspirations, desires, and potential, and externally, a world of action, a world that never properly reflects the inner world; a world of the monkey. And there is an eternal gap between the two.
Ignoring that gap, living as if how we represent ourselves IS our reality, dulls us to our inner world. By remembering of its existence, we dance between the poles of who we are and how we project ourselves; of what we can be and how we’re doing on the outside, of what I want in my life and where I am today. That tension is the fuel of a meaningful and ever-growing life. One of the great thinkers of our day, Christian Wiman once wrote that, “Poetry itself – like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger-thrives on longing that can never be fulfilled and dies when the poet thinks they have been.” If we think we’ve defeated the imposter, we’re just fooling and defeating ourselves.
And that’s why we are told to remember Amaleik and not forget them. By remembering that we live in two dimensions, that we need to define ourselves, not based on how others perceive us, but based on who we know we could be, that life is a monkey-dance between our projections and our inner world, the more we remember that, the more we aware of that gap, the greater we can be.