Rosh Hashanah 5778 – Which Book Will You Write Yourself Into?
Today is the great and awesome Day of Judgment. The traditional imagery is of God on high, with three books in front Him: the Book of Life, the Book of Death, and the Book of Maybe. The Talmud tells us that people who are wholly righteous are immediately written and sealed into the Book of Life. The wholly wicked are immediately written and sealed into the Book of Death. The really, really big book is that one for the rest of us, those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked.
Most of us don’t anthropomorphize God. Picturing a Divine Being in judicial robes doesn’t resonate for us. Besides, since the verdict isn’t even announced in our presence, if we rely on the Heavenly Court, we don’t get the useful feedback we need to guide our lives onto the right path. If the holiday is to have meaning, the judging needs to happen down here. We have to figure out which book we’re in for the coming year.
But who can really judge themselves?
The first thing we have to do in even trying to judge ourselves is to overcome our yetzer hara, our evil inclination. That tricky yetzer hara will start out by taking away the motivation for us to examine ourselves in the first place, and if we manage to push through that barrier it will offer convenient excuses and justifications for our past misdeeds.
Other people have the opposite problem: they judge themselves so harshly they see nothing but their flaws, and feel they might as well give up because it’s hopeless that they could ever turn things around.
But what if we’re doing the judging all wrong?
What if the judging is more about the future than about the past?
There are contradictory teachings about judgment. On the one hand, we’re told today is Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. On the other hand, we’re told a person is judged every day.
So, which is it? Are we judged once a year, or are we judged every day?
The Slonimer rebbe, a 20th century Chasidic rabbi, points out a difference in the wording regarding judging. The Talmud teaches, “Man is judged every day, as it says in the book of Job, “You inspect him every morning.” But regarding Rosh Hashanah what the Talmud says is “the world is judged.” The Slonimer explains this means that the exact details of our behavior on any day are judged right away on that day; but how we are doing in the context of “our world,” which is to say, our mission, our role in life, that’s judged on Rosh Hashanah.
What’s more, the judging we do relative to our own world, our mission and role, is much more focused on the future than on the past.
Certain points in time serve as gates. The beginning of a new day is a gateway to that day. Our intention at the start of the day can make a big difference in what happens during the day. Similarly, rosh chodesh, the start of a new month, is a gate to that month; and Rosh Hashanah, today, the New Year, is the biggest gate of all, the gate to the coming year.
The real essence of the judging we do today isn’t about the past. The past is gone. There’s not much we can do about the past. Yes, we have to reflect on the past, we should try to repair any damage we’ve done in the past, we need to understand our past to have some context for where we want to go, but the real essence is about the future. We’re at a gate, an opening, a beginning, to a new year. How do we want to enter that gate? Where do we want to go? What kind of person do we want to be in the coming year? What’s our mission, what are we here to accomplish?
Right now, today, Rosh Hashanah, you can decide which of those three books you’re going to write yourself into. Have a firm intention to be a righteous person and to fulfill your mission, and you’re immediately written into the book of life. You have to remember though, the one person you can’t lie to is God. You can lie to yourself – most of us tell ourselves things that aren’t true at least occasionally. But God knows if your intent is sincere, or if you’re just saying or thinking something with no intention of actually carrying it out.
But how do you find your mission, your role? That’s a big challenge. A challenge not just for today but for your life.
Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that the mission of the Jews is to do tikun olam, a healing or repair of the world. The world, created in a sort of cosmic work accident when the vessels of physicality were unable to hold God’s divine energy, is a broken place. We’re here to pick up the pieces, to bring the shattered remnants of divinity back to their source through doing mitzvot, fulfilling the commandments. To the mystics, any mitzvah we do—whether feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lighting Shabbat candles or keeping kosher—contributes to “tikun olam,” the repair of the world, the bringing of the holy sparks back to God.
Yesod HaAvodah, the first Chasidic rebbe of Slonim, wrote that each of us has a unique tikkun, a unique healing of the world that we are uniquely qualified to do. It is for the purpose of fulfilling this unique mission that our souls began the long journey downward into our bodies, into the physical world. The mystics tell us that no one else can accomplish our missions: by dint of our uniqueness, those special characteristics that come with our soul being put in our bodies and the things we have experienced in our lives, there is some special thing that each one of us can accomplish that no one else can.
But how do you find that unique healing that only you can do? As Po Bronson puts it in his book What Should I do with My Life, “Wouldn’t it be much easier if you got a letter in the mail when you were seventeen, signed by someone who had a direct pipeline to Ultimate Meaning, telling you exactly who you are and what your true destiny is? Then you could carry this letter around in your pocket, and when you got confused or distracted and suddenly melted down, you’d reach for your wallet and grab the letter and read it again and go, “Oh, right.”
One of the people Bronson interviewed for his book actually got such a letter. Choeaor Dondup, who grew up in a refugee camp in southern India, was a 17-year-old who had not yet figured out what to do with his life when he got a letter from the Dalai Lama telling him he wasn’t actually Choeaor Dondup, but rather he was the reincarnation of a warrior who along with his five brothers ruled a poor and remote region of Eastern Tibet six lifetimes ago. In that earlier lifetime, he founded thirteen monasteries and became the great spiritual leader of the region. It was now Choeaor’s turn to train for this position.
I would not suggest that you go home and wait for a letter. In the Jewish world, we don’t have the equivalent of the Dalai Lama, and I don’t think the Dalai Lama has found any reincarnations of Tibetan warriors among the Jews. Besides, having the answer dropped in your lap would NOT be the Jewish way to address the question of what to do with one’s life. Jews focus much more on questions than on answers.
In figuring out what we should do with our lives, asking the right question is of critical importance. We ask our kids “what do you want to be when you grow up?” And we smile when we hear the usual answers – ballet dancer, astronaut, fireman, actor, rock star. I’m particularly tickled when one of my kids would say “rabbi.” But we get so used to hearing the question framed that way by grownups, it’s still that same question we ask ourselves when we get to college: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” And this is the wrong question to be asking.
What do I want? The answer will almost always be a job that is “fun.” A job that is “exciting.” A job that is NOT boring, not ever. And this becomes the impossible dream and can lead to bouncing from job to job as the excitement of each new experience wears off.
We live in an exciting, fast moving world. Email isn’t fast enough anymore: we have to have smartphones with Instant Messaging and social media so we can be in constant contact. We don’t play chess, we play video games. Instead of thinking about a move for minutes, we react in a fraction of a second. The impact of all of this modern technology is to make us stimulation junkies, easily bored if things don’t move fast enough. And we expect this same kind of stimulation in our work.
Our mission in life is not to spend the forty years or so of our working lives being stimulated. Being stimulated is not the same as being fulfilled. Being stimulated is not the same as making a meaningful contribution to the repair of the world. Stimulation is not enduring.
In his book, Po Bronson suggests that a better question is “What should I do with my life?” Many of us have a sort of phobia of the word “should.” We don’t want to be told what we “should” do. A good friend of mine told me he always avoided even using the word “should.” Should, he said, was a “religious term,” and as he was not religious, it was something to be avoided like the plague.
Since I’m in the religion business, I have a license to use the word “should.” But even this question, “what should I do with my life,” doesn’t go far enough in the spiritual dimension. It is still focused on “I,” on the “me.”
Judaism does not teach that God’s greatest concern is our personal happiness and feeling of fulfillment. God isn’t here to serve us, we are here to serve God. There is a goal for each of us to accomplish. A story is told of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Chabad branch of Chasidic Judaism. One time Reb Zalman was in jail on a trumped-up charge. The rav looked quiet and majestic as he sat meditating and praying awaiting his trial. The jailer figured he looked like a thoughtful person, and wondered what kind of man he was. They began to talk, and the jailer brought up a number of questions from scripture which had been bothering him. In the story of Adam and Eve, right after they eat from the tree of knowledge, they get embarrassed, try to cover up with a fig leaf and hide. God calls out “where are you?” So the jailer asked: “How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam, ‘where are you?’” “Do you believe,” answered the rav, “that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation, and every man is included in them?” “I believe this,” said the jailer. “Well then,” said the rav, “in every ear, God calls to every man: ‘Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’ God says something like this: ‘You have lived forty-six years. How far along are you?’” When the jailer heard his age mentioned, he pulled himself together, laid his hand on the rav’s shoulder, and cried: “Bravo!” But his heart trembled.
And why did his heart tremble? Forty-six years have gone by, and had he gotten very far in his world, in his mission in the world?
My mentor (or as he sometimes describes himself, “mentor and tormentor”) from my business career, Dr. Abe Zarem, shared with me a great question that his mother used to ask him: “Why were you put in my womb?” Can you imagine your mother asking you this? I suppose it could feel very different depending on the mood she was in when she asked!
This is a much better way to phrase the question. Having a child is a blessing from God. When God put us in our mothers’ womb, God had some reason for choosing to do that. There was some purpose, some mission that God had in mind for us to accomplish. Our challenge then, is to figure out what that purpose is, and to go do it.
For Abe, his answer is “to identify talented people and push them to accomplish more than they otherwise would.” This is a mission that can be accomplished in any number of jobs and any number of settings—and Abe has done just that in a variety ways from mentoring young entrepreneurs he invested in—I met Abe almost 35 years ago—to being generous with his time and advice to young (and not so young) people who are struggling with the question of what to do with themselves. Abe has a unique way of contributing to the improvement of the world.
This is a question I grapple with every year, and the answer is different at different times. This year I feel my mission is what I’m doing right now, serving as your rabbi, comforting those needing comfort, prodding those needing prodding, and trying to connect people with God and Torah. At other times, I’ve felt my mission was to help Israel live up to the best ideals of the Jewish tradition. I have no idea what my mission will be next year – there’s no shortage of improvement needed in the world.
Identifying the crucial question: “why am I here, what’s my mission?” is important. But how do we find the answer to the question?
There are some who would dismiss a question like this as a sign of upper middle class Western angst. Poor people don’t get to choose. They’re happy to have whatever job they can find to put food on the table and a roof above them. Why worry about ultimate meaning? Why not just go out and get a job and make a living, and be done with it?
Our tradition says EVERYONE—rich, poor, with great gifts or modest gifts—has a contribution to make to tikkun olam. We each have a role to play in making the world a better place. In the book of Deuteronomy it is written, “re’eh, anokhi notan lifneikhem hayom bracha u’klala,” “see, I set before you today blessings and curses.” The Slonimer rebbe taught that figuring out your mission in life, your unique tikkun, and accomplishing it, is the greatest blessing a person can have. It is its own reward. Toiling for 70 years and not accomplishing your mission, or not even figuring out what it is, is the greatest curse. It is to waste your life.
Your life mission—your unique task—does not necessarily have to be working at a job that is overtly altruistic. The world needs people who do the most mundane of jobs. My first Talmud teacher was a Chabad rabbi. When I announced to him that I was thinking of giving up high tech to become a rabbi, he sort of discouraged me. He told me, “not everyone needs to be a Torah scholar. Some people have the role of making money, which they can give to tzedaka to SUPPORT Torah scholars.” This is a model, by the way, described in the Midrash, where it says the tribe of Zebulun were merchants who worked to support the tribe of Issachar who were scholars. And of course, secular Israelis support the haredim in the Yeshivas today, although they do so against their will – a topic for a different sermon. I don’t think that Chabad rabbi was really trying to raise money from me — he was just stating a simple fact: we can’t all have the same mission, we’re not all destined to be rabbis!
But when doing a mundane job, the person who is accomplishing a mission will bring meaning to the task. The story is told of three bricklayers who were asked why they were doing what they were doing. One said for a paycheck. The second said to support his family. The third said “I’m building a cathedral.”
Sometimes we have to try a few different jobs or courses of study before we find the one that resonates, the one that we recognize as the right one. Disaster and failure can often provide the stimulus that one needs to move in a new direction. Many people find their life’s calling in working for organizations like the Cancer Society, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, after they have been struck with personal disasters. While not all of us encounter such life-changing issues, most of us have had failures on a smaller scale: jobs that weren’t quite right, that weren’t working out the way we had hoped. It can be scary when it happens, but it can also be the time of opportunity.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was working as VP Marketing for a smallish ($100 million) computer chip company. I had left a very large company six months earlier for a position that in many ways had less responsibility, but I thought I’d be happier in a smaller company. The company had hired me based on my expertise in the cell phone business—they wanted to move into this business because it was much higher growth and much sexier than the mundane timing chips they were making. It turned out the company didn’t have the products, the technology, or the capacity for investment needed to succeed in this new business; in other words, there was nothing I could do for them. It was a bad fit. When it became clear that I should move on to something else, the easiest thing, certainly the easiest thing financially, would have been to take a comparable job in a company that DID have the right technical capabilities. Instead I took a deep breath, and with three kids and a wife due to deliver another in a few days, I quit my job, put the house on the market, and went to rabbinical school.
Which points to one of the biggest potential barriers to accomplishing our life’s mission: success at the wrong job. There is nothing harder than to leave a job where we are basically content and successful, but unfulfilled—where we know we are not living up to our potential, but are comfortable. When we encounter adversity, we really need to make the most of it because it is so difficult to change when things are going well! It is of critical importance to take advantage of the opportunity when a little adversity comes your way. Never let a good crisis go to waste!
The fact that I’m here is also partly the result of a crisis – the biggest client I had went out of business, and I got divorced, and so instead of just looking for a job in Israel I decided to go back to doing congregational work, something I’d missed doing. Something that had once been my calling.
Some people have an idealistic vision of something they want to do when they are young. They figure they’ll get a “real” job for just a few years to put some money away, and then they’ll quit and pursue the dream. A lot of people go to law school because they want to change the world. They want to protect the rights of the oppressed as a public defender. They want to save the environment. Then they get to law school, rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and take a job with a big law firm, telling themselves it’s just until they pay off the loans. But somehow those student loans turn into car loans and mortgages, and somehow the original dream gets lost. Do you know anyone who had a dream, put it on hold a few years to make money, and went back to it? I only know one such person. It happens, but it is very rare. The message is don’t put your dreams off—as the great rabbi Hillel said, “if not now, when?”
Your life’s mission is not necessarily what you do at a regular full-time job. My Chabad rabbi was right: we can’t all be rabbis. Some of the most important characters in the Biblical narrative were relatively ordinary people: for example, we just read the story of Sarah becoming pregnant and giving birth to Isaac—the story of one of the ancestral mothers of the Jewish people. Her mission was to be a mother, and a role model. It could well be that you fulfill your most important work as a volunteer, or on a part time basis. I’ve known successful people who do not derive great satisfaction from their careers, but rather from their outside activities. Rashi, perhaps the greatest Torah scholar who ever lived, whose light still shines for anyone who studies Torah or Talmud, did his life’s major work as a “part time” task—his income came from his work as a wine merchant. Or more likely his Torah work was his full-time work, and his part time work as a wine merchant paid the bills. But the point is the same. Don’t confuse your main purpose in life with your job title.
Today is Rosh Hashanah – the Day of Judgment. As we sit in judgment on ourselves, let’s not get so caught up in the past that we lose sight of the future. We are standing at the threshold, we’re at the gate, at the start of a New Year. Where do you want to go? For what purpose? Which book are you going to write yourself into?
Shanah tovah u’metukah, may you have a good and sweet year.