At the risk of sounding “Pollyannish” (“on steroids” no less, as a reviewer wrote concerning my book) I must admit that the past two “Corona Yom Kippurim” have been amongst the best I’ve ever experienced. Perhaps the main reason for this is that I had the opportunity of davening under my most favored condition, i.e. alone, with a minyan. Being that I am highly distractable and also place much importance on my tefillot during the Yomim No’raim (don’t we all?), I like to be as isolated as possible even while attending an organized minyan. Both last year and this, given the unusual circumstances for minyanim both times, I was able to do so, and it enhanced my prayers greatly.
Last year, I also treated myself to a new set of machzorim despite the fact that I had a perfectly good set of Art Scroll machzorim that had served me well for many years and significantly deepened my experience. However, I purchased a Koren set with an introduction and commentary by the late (great!) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l. I took the opportunity to scan some of his comments during breaks in the tefilla and found them both illuminating and inspirational.
One commentary in particular caused me to undergo a type of epiphany. It appears in the section on the Nesaneh Tokef of Musaf of Yom Kippur. It opened up a life-altering and new understanding of one of life’s deepest quandaries.
We are familiar with the story told of Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol (1718-1800):
When Rabbi Zusha was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, “When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you like Moses?’, or ‘Why weren’t you like Abraham?’ I can answer that I did not have their abilities. However, they will ask, ‘Why weren’t you like Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fully live up to my own potential? That is the question I fear. And for that, I have no answer.”
I have always understood that we are endowed with our own distinct, one-of-a-kind “toolkit” of genetic makeup, environment, talents, and even handicaps, by Hashem. This “toolkit” is totally adequate for fulfilling our unique purpose in life. We were put into this world to accomplish that which only we can accomplish. It is our job to try to understand what that purpose is and to work to fulfill it.
However, I have always associated this “purpose” with some type of lasting work or legacy which would then live after us. Sarah Schenirer’s legacy was the Bais Yaakov movement. Many great rabbis are known by the name of the major work they wrote such as the Chafetz Chaim and the Chiddushei Harim, to name just a few.
And this was somewhat troubling for me. As I am nearing (or already in) my Golden Years, I’m still not absolutely sure what my “mission” is, or if I have progressed at all in achieving it. Yes, this year I did write a book. But, I’m very hesitant to assert that it is the purpose for which I was born. And it’s getting rather “late in the day.” When will the flash of insight reveal to me my life’s purpose and my own progress?
And then, on Yom Kippur, I read the following passage by Rabbi Sacks:
“God calls to us, each of us, here where we are, this person, in this situation, at this time, saying: there is an act only you can do, a situation only you can address, a moment that, if not seized, may never come again. God commands in generalities but calls in particulars. He knows our gifts and He knows the needs of the world. That is why we are here. There in an act only we can do, and only at this time, and that is our task. The sum of these tasks is the meaning of our life, the purpose of our existence, the story we are called on to write…
There is no life without a task, no person without a talent…no situation without its possibility of sanctification, no moment without it’s call.”
Ah, so that’s it. I now had a stunning and new understanding. Your life’s mission is cumulative. It’s not necessarily some singular and memorable work or accomplishment. But rather, it’s about the sum of all my acts, the ones that only I could do, perhaps because I had the particular needed talent or ability or because I was in the right place at the right time, placed there by a Power that chose me to be a messenger for good. My task, my mission, is the aggregate of all the times that I was there for someone who needed a friend, when I answered the request of anyone needing a helping hand, when I consoled a weeping child or complimented someone who craved some recognition.
If I taught a class and even one person gained an insight from me, that was a part of my mission. When I volunteered to help out and thereby lessened someone’s burden, I was adding a word, a line, or a verse to the poem which is my life. A kind word, a warm caress to a frightened child, anything and everything that I did and do that increases the good that enters into our world, all are essential and meaningful. Each is a component of the structure that I create – My Life. Each is a contribution toward the perfected world that Hashem bids us to create along with Him.
Rabbi Sacks points out that the word “Hineni” was employed by many in Tanach to express their readiness to fulfill Hashem’s task. Each of the Avot said it when called upon to face a challenge. The prophet, Shmuel, said it when, as a young boy, he heard the call of Hashem.
“When God calls, He whispers our name – and the greatest reply, the reply of Avraham, is simply ‘Hineni’, ‘Here I am,’ ready to heed Your call, to mend a fragment of Your all-too-broken world.’ (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Koren Machzor)
As we turn from the period of Elul and the Yamim No’raim and enter into Sukkot and “the rest of the year,” may we attune our souls to listen for the “still, small voice” calling upon us to act in the way that only we can in this particular place, at this very moment, with our own unique gifts and abilities.