Think Again: Who are you?

I realized that I had received a tremendous wake-up call less than two weeks prior to Rosh Hashana.

Rosh Hashanah (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rosh Hashanah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, I was asked to write to someone whom I have never met personally but with whom I have had some previous e-mail contact, to firm up the time for an appointment a few days hence. I had been told that the person to whom I was writing had already agreed to the appointment, and had asked to be contacted on a certain day to fix a specific time.
I was a bit taken aback when a three-word email came back from his assistant, without salutation or polite gloss of any kind: Who are you? My first reaction was that I had stumbled into someone else’s play, with unfortunate consequences, like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But when I thought about it further, I realized that I had received a tremendous wake-up call less than two weeks prior to Rosh Hashana.
On Rosh Hashana, each of us will stand, as it were, face to face with God. Our Sages describe, “all who come into the world as passing in front of Him like Bnei Meron” on Rosh Hashana. The Talmud offers three possible explanations of the enigmatic term Bnei Meron. Either it refers to those going through a narrow passage, wide enough for only one person at a time, or to the soldiers of King David, who received their individual orders prior to entering into battle, or to sheep passing under the rod of their shepherd to be counted.
But all have one idea in common: We confront God as individuals on Rosh Hashana, and not as members of a group.
His first question will be the same as that of the assistant: Who are you? And as I found out staring at that email, answering that question is not so easy. Nor is it a question that many of us have spent much time thinking about. Sure most of us could provide a resumé of some sort. We might describe our profession, or name our spouse and children, perhaps add a brief biography, or tout a few awards. But none of these matters really go to the heart of the question. We are left describing various attributes of ourselves, but nothing of our essence, our unique individuality.
The real question, which Rosh Hashana beckons us to face is: What is my mission in life? What do I have to contribute that no one else in the world does? That is hinted at in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in which each person is described as being judged according to his “ma’asav v’p’kudotav” – his deeds and his mission. The first refers to his or her mitzva observance. But the second is no less important, for it refers to a person’s unique tafkid (mission) in life.
We might think that from the point of view of a mitzva-observant Jew, care in the observance of mitzvot is by far the most powerful determinant of the judgment of Rosh Hashana. But that is not the case. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the moving force behind the first major yeshiva in America, used to bring a midrash to make the point. The midrash discusses Naboth the Carmelite, who refused to sell his vineyard to the wicked queen Jezebel, and who in turn caused false witnesses to be brought against him – and he was put to death.
The Midrash asks: What could such a righteous man have done to deserve such a horrible fate? It answers that Naboth had a beautiful voice. Every pilgrimage festival those who had gone up to Jerusalem looked forward to being spiritually aroused by his praying. One year, Naboth failed to come to Jerusalem for the festival. That was the year that Jezebel had him killed. The lesson that Reb Mendlowitz derived is that the suppression of some special gift that God gives a person is also the basis for judgment.
Rosh Hashana is the day that God first breathed into Adam’s nostrils, and thereby established the connection between Man and the Upper Worlds. Like God Himself, Man is a creator, God’s partner in bringing the world to its ultimate purpose. The judgment on Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the birth of Man as a spiritual being, focuses on the question: Does this person deserve to be created again? Does he have a role to play in bringing the world to its purpose? And if the answer is affirmative, what tools does he need to fulfill that mission? HOW DOES a person begin to think about his or her particular mission? Reb Mendlowitz believed that just as every animal instinctively does that which is needed to ensure its survival, so each person has some instinctive sense of his or her purpose in life. Some have a strong sense of calling from an early age – e.g., musical or mathematical prodigies who are passionately drawn to particular endeavors.
Others notice something that requires repair in their society, or even in the smaller circle of family or friends. And instead of telling themselves that everyone else must have noticed the same thing, and that someone more talented or powerful or influential than they will surely address the problem, they take responsibility upon themselves. They reason that if God revealed a certain problem to them, then that is a sign that the problem is related to them in some way. Like Joseph, they not only interpret Pharaoh’s dream to ascertain the approaching danger, but offer a plan for alleviating the threat.
And for still others, their mission is thrust upon them by the circumstances into which they are thrust, and the way they respond to challenges they could have done little to anticipate.
All this requires preparation. Ideally, the entire month of Elul is devoted to an analysis of where one is holding in life, what is still to be achieved, and what resources – both internal and external – are required to achieve that goal. The process starts with the recognition that each of us was only brought into being because we have something unique to contribute to the world – each of us has a task given to no one who preceded us and no one who will follow.
The preparation for Rosh Hashana requires each of us to think about both our strengths and our weaknesses. The former are no less important than the latter: The purpose of this reflection is not to lacerate ourselves about our failures but to look forward towards fulfilling our mission. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the 19th-century Mussar movement of ethical revival, used to say that it is a tragedy if a person does not know his weaknesses, but it is a far greater tragedy if he does not know his strengths and gifts, for the latter will generally provide the clearest guide to his unique mission.
The required reflection is not solipsistic navel- gazing. The self-knowledge being sought takes one beyond oneself to ascertain one’s place in the world. Our Sages say that Abraham “recognized His Creator from himself.”
Usually that statement is taken to mean that Abraham derived the existence of a Creator independent of Divine revelation, and only once he had done so did God reveal Himself to Abraham. But Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the spiritual leader of the prewar Mir Yeshiva offered another understanding: Through the study of himself and the knowledge obtained, Abraham not only derived the fact of God’s existence, but even the specific commandments.
That knowledge of himself thus led him directly to his great mission of proclaiming God’s existence to mankind.
Tragically, the requisite self-knowledge has never been farther from us. That is why the question “Who are you?” is almost certain to trigger something akin to panic.
The title of Nicholas Carr’s popular book on the impact of constant connectivity on our neurological hardwiring, including our capacity for contemplation, captures our situation: The Shallows. We have become shallow, distracted people, who live our lives in public on Facebook because we are so utterly lacking any sense of self and so dependent on the reactions of others as a means of affirming our own existence.
Rosh Hashana provides us with a once-a- year opportunity to escape our own shallowness and to rediscover ourselves. Only when we can answer the question “Who are you?” without defining ourselves in terms of anyone else or their feelings about us, does the claim become plausible that each of our lives is a once-in-history opportunity to realize some aspect of the Divine plan. But if we succeed in answering that question, the path opens before us of a life filled with meaning and purpose.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year filled with all manner of material and spiritual blessing.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.