I discovered something amazing once I stopped linking Jewish oppression to other human suffering in the world. Granted, this took me more than 20 years. Like many other Jews sitting down to the Seder, our family would find another group that unfortunately has or is suffering and during the meal, we’d work to connect our national story with theirs. Every year, new Haggadahs come out in support of this effort, highlighting the plight of African Americans, women, farm laborers.
Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. By the seventh day G-d completed His work; so on the seventh day He rested. G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work of creating that He had done.” Genesis 2:1-3
Disclaimer: The following words are not meant for the faint of heart. They may include ideas and concepts that challenge and contradict many of the underlying ideologies that drive our current society. I don’t mean to offend. I want to challenge how you think. If you don’t agree with me, that’s ok. But maybe think a bit before the gut reaction. The following also may include lines that don’t make sense. I have self-diagnosed ADD and not much time, so I’m driving at content over clarity. Bless you.
As June gloom lifts to the reported lazy days of summer, our college graduates go out into the world with the training that they invested thousands of dollars and 35,040 hours of their lives. Do you have clarity where to go from here? Job wise? Life wise? Are you already starting to reminisce about the good old days? Has responsibility started creeping up on you? With the advent of internships and grad schools, perhaps not. When will it? When should it?
One of the primary mistakes that our society indoctrinates us with is that a job and direction in life are synonymous. Even if you’re on the “making people’s life better” track (which is really every job I hope) the day in and day out of life will likely lead you, if not now then in another 30 years, to ask “is this the point of my life??” Once you even ask the question, you’ll have to accept that the answer is “no.”
As a campus rabbi, I find myself forgetting to wish people “mazel tov” on their graduation, because I’m not sure what they finished. I have the rare opportunity to get to know people for who they are, not their student number, their GPA, or sometimes even major. I don’t think it matters so much. Frankly, a piece of paper that may or may not (statistically not) get you a job doesn’t mean you’re ready for the next stage in your life. Most graduates don’t even know what the next stage will be. Grad student? Young professional? What makes those stages different from college besides different kinds of tests and hopefully a little bit more money (or not).
College graduates have to realize they are most of the way through the foundational stages of their lives. Now four years out of high school, you’ve had time to learn about yourself. Did you? Do you know who you are and what you hope to accomplish? Sure you know your “limits.” But do you know you? Sorry to offend, but at this stage you should. You should have some idea. For thousands of years of human history, by the time someone turned 22, they had an idea about what or where their lives should be headed. I hate to say it but most were married. Most knew what they wanted to do. And I’d like to submit that maybe they were on to something. Could be that by now people should know what direction they want in life.
A brilliant rabbi said that the teenage years were an American invention. In other societies, during the teenage years, when the body and mind are naturally becoming mature, people were out working, getting married, and starting their lives. Now that we have technology, and school, and college, the teenage years have become a time of angst, and looking forward, and awkwardness. But at least we grow up in college. Until Animal House came out. And now college is the time to party with no responsibilities (yes I was a history major, no I wasn’t an engineer or a bio major, but you still probably don’t know what you want out of life besides a good job).
At least post college we can get serious. Until our dear Jewish compatriot Zach Braff came out with Garden State, which gave people an insight that it was normal to go moping through your twenties looking for meaning as long as there are friends and drinking and the Shins (a band for the non-emo people out there) playing in the background. He’s coming out with a new movie about how you do that in your 30’s also.
Point is, as a society, we are increasingly delaying the age of maturation. Because why mature when it’s hard? Why take responsibility and commitment when we don’t have to? Why settle down? I was very pleasantly surprised to read in the introduction to the famous book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” that most self-help books from the time America started until World War 1 advocated that people change themselves in order to become successful. People would have to try to become better, more focused, honest, virtuous, service-oriented, etc. After World War 1, the self-help industry changed to teaching people how to affect how others saw them. The author of the book argues that this shift lead to the terrible dichotomy in people’s lives today, where they are living a perception that isn’t them.
So, deep down, screaming out, maybe there is a voice inside that says “hey I don’t know where I’m going yet.” On the outside, I have a job or a grad school or a life. Is this the direction I’m supposed to go in? Am I becoming who I want to be? Do I want to be a dentist? Is that what I want to do so much that once I leave or retire I have no other aspirations in life? I want to travel. Why? I want to be rich. So you can do what?
Growth starts with a commitment. Commitment can and should come with cutting off your other options. Cutting off options requires self confidence. Self confidence starts with self knowledge. Self knowledge starts with introspection. Do we think? Do we care? Or do we just take the pill called “partying” or “internships” or “grad school” to punt until someone comes to us and offers us a meaning or a job or a thing we can buy into?
It’s funny. Everyone on Facebook is having fun. Everyone is having a good time and taking over the world. So many friends. On LinkedIn, everyone has so many impressive job titles. It’s because we pick the pictures we want, and write the titles that make us sound good. And what we pick and what we want happens to make us look and sound like everyone else on a social media website. So go live. Become something unique. Try to live a life that is so unique that people have to create labels for you. Try to formulate an opinion without checking how the media or Facebook or the news thinks about you. YOUR JOB DOESN’T DEFINE YOU. DEFINE YOUR JOB. What are you here for? What will your contribution be. The world doesn’t need another rabbi, doctor, lawyer, salesman, executive, or intern. The world needs you. Did college teach you who you were? If it did, congratulations on graduating. If not, and you’re like I was, and everyone else is, welcome to the kindergarten of adulthood. Lesson one, figure out who you are.
People always want the inside scoop of my job as a campus rabbi. Rarely am I asked the greatest benefit; it is known and assumed that what I do is important. But everyone wants to know the dirt. “C’mon man, what bugs you most about the people?” “Rabbi, do you get tired of hearing the same questions?” “What really bothers you?” While spending some time this past Shabbat with a friend of mine who is, as I call him, a “real rabbi,” I was candid with him about my greatest pet peeve. I was surprised to find that after spending time with college students, he had the same experience. And then, shockingly, I found this exact pet peeve discussed by the great rabbis in this past week’s Torah portion (Parshas Re’eh).
I didn’t get this far in my career by not shaking things up. A mentor and coach of mine once referred to me being like a bull in a china shop when it came to how I dealt with people. Now as strange as it sounds, I never like being the bad cop, or the “no” man, or that guy that spoils all the fun. But then again, sometimes someone’s gotta do it. So imagine the following typical scenario that repeats itself on campus or at my Shabbat table. I’m speaking to someone. So far, conversation is going great. Then, it happens. I am asked my opinion. The person I am speaking with wants to know what I think, and I am aware it’s vastly different, perhaps even confrontational, to how he (or she) thinks. I weigh options; smile, say something “pareve” (neither positive nor negative) and allow the person to walk away thinking ‘hey, he’s cool.” Or maybe I open up a little, say something a little edgy, maybe offend them, maybe challenge them, and maybe show them they’re mistaken. Ok, so I pick B (usually only if I like the person).
A debate ensues. My discussion partner and I go back and forth, trading facts, logic, and figures. Sometimes I win. Usually. Not because I’m smarter, it’s just that I’ve been doing this a bit longer. And I’ve also been there, as a former Bay area raised collegiate. It also helps that nearly all my discussions are about either religion, politics, or relationships. I don’t debate math, don’t really know anything about sports (except weight lifting and who debates about that), and I am still learning about business…and nothing much else gets people riled up. Anyway, I win the argument. Or, if you’ve been to my Shabbat table, I’ll say “It’s time to bentsch” (the after blessing for the meal) and then use that authority to make my final point, and not allow time for a rebuttal.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve made the knockout punch of our intellectual boxing match. Expecting that “a-ha I’ll change my life!” response that happens never, I instead get what has become my biggest pet peeve. My friend sits, stumped. And then he says the famous words, “Well Rabbi, you know, I’m not such an expert, but I bet you could find someone out there that could refute you.” Implication being, you’re right but I’m not changing. Whaaaaaat?? Since when did a discussion ever end with “after my argument has been refuted, I’ll keep my premise on the hope that other facts out there will support it, and I just haven’t yet found them.”
There’s nothing wrong with not knowing. How can a person learn if they don’t start with a lack of knowledge? In fact, it says that a person who doesn’t ask, won’t learn. In a million years, we shouldn’t feel bad having a question. In fact, as someone who has spent most of his life being in situations where I was the least knowledgeable person in the room, I know first-hand how important, and how hard it is to say “I don’t know.” So this shouldn’t be construed as an assault on those lacking knowledge.
Rather, what drives me nuts is people act like they know. They even think they know. Their actions seem to be that they know. And when you call them out and show them that they’re wrong, they still act like they know, except now they know that they don’t. And instead of change, they retroactively claim ignorance. So if you don’t know, be honest about that up front. And if you’re going to take a position, so then allow your position to be proven false if that is the case. And if it’s proven false, don’t rely on the tooth fairy coming to prove your point at a later date. She might come, but until then, take my word for it!
I have had many discussions with a close friend and student of mine. Once in a while he’ll conclude my answers make more sense. “So,” I ask expectantly, “do you agree with me?” He shrugs and says, “Well, there’s no way to know, but I’m going to keep acting as if my initial argument was correct.” What is the genesis of such a stance?
And we all do it! I’m no better than the next guy. But why?
The Torah portion last week says emphatically, “See, I’m putting before you a blessing and a curse.” The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno was an Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician. He was born at Cesena about 1475 and died at Bologna in 1550, thank you Wikipedia) says “See to it that your actions are not mediocre like the behavior of most people. For I have placed before you today a blessing and curse which are the two extremes…both of these are available for you to choose.” As one of my favorite rabbis would tell me “Don’t be a baby.”
The nature of people is to embrace mediocrity. We don’t want to take positions because our egos don’t want to deal with the very real possibility that we could be wrong. We like to be “pareve.” As I said before, I very often like to shrink back and not say my mind because I don’t want to be seen as distant, removed, weird, or wrong. Avraham Avinu (our father) questioned, or hesitated, performing the circumcision on himself because he was afraid he’d be perceived as ‘different’ and thereby not be able to have the same impact on people.
The Torah seems to emphasize that it is, at times, ok to be an extremist. Have your beliefs. Research them, know them, be able to argue them, and if you’re wrong, it’s ok, be wrong. Be cursed. Just don’t be in the middle. We read about the disappearing middle class in America. Everyone is either becoming uber rich or poor. Perhaps it’s the same in the world of the mind. The middle class is unstable; staying in this dubious state of moral uncertainty and intellectual lack of clarity for the sake of not having to take an opinion is the quickest path to intellectual poverty.
We can say it even more clearly. To be in the middle is not even to be alive. It’s like you’re breathing, and have a pulse, but no life. There’s no passion. Nothing motivates you. You live your life purposeless, floating from one convenient stage to another. As a great rabbi put it, you’re like tall grass blowing in the wind; you go wherever the wind blows you.
The Torah wants you alive. Animated. Anchored. Be WRONG! See that you’re wrong. Change it. Be right. Be really right. Defend your position proudly. Don’t be afraid of people challenging you. People can survive not being liked by everyone. Abraham was one man and the rest of the world stood opposite him. Guess what? He was the, or certainly one of the, greatest agents of change in human history.
Consider this: Your actions are what you know (or think) to be true. We do what we think is right. If we’re going to act in a certain way, it’s because we chose to believe that that is the best thing to do (even if we don’t have a lot of evidence). In the world of action, there’s no pareve. Either you do or you don’t. So since anyway your actions demand you take a stand and choose, why not back it up with knowing if what you’re doing is right??
Put it bluntly. Say you act like there’s no higher authority. You do whatever you want. Now in your mind you aren’t sure. You can’t be sure something doesn’t exist. Say it’s 80/20, or 50/50. Say someone (like me) comes and shows you arguments or evidence that push the scales 51/49 in favor of an intelligent higher authority that has the ability to tell you what to do. Is it logical to act like there isn’t said authority? Do you really have to wait until its 99/1? Or 100/0? Does that make sense? Or is it all about comfort?
Judaism anticipated this problem long before us. It values passion and conviction even over correctness. Now, don’t think you can just do whatever you want just because you believe it. We have a brain for a reason. But be honest with yourself. Learn enough, think enough to be certain in your beliefs, and then do. (****See the bottom of this for an important point, but just not related to the topic of the blog.****)
There was a beautiful story that illustrates this concept. A chassidic rebbe went to visit a non-practicing Jewish man from whom he needed help in a certain project. The Rebbe (rabbi) came into the man’s home as the man was sitting down to a big clearly non-kosher feast (think Chipotle with the chipotle tabasco sauce…no bowl, an actual burrito). The rabbi blessed the man to eat with his full desire. The man was puzzled. He said to the Rabbi, “but Rabbi, how could you tell me to eat with my full desire when you know it’s not kosher??” The rabbi responded that when it comes to making a mistake, if you make a mistake because the temptation was simply too great to turn down, G-d so to speak understands. We’re human, we all make mistakes. But if we sin because we don’t care, because we’re indifferent, so that’s something really bad. So the Rabbi was blessing the man that he should eat his non-kosher food not because he didn’t care about kosher, but because he wasn’t strong enough to overcome the urge to eat it, as it is delicious.
So in short, and in life, we’ll all make mistakes. We can’t help it. But don’t make the mistake of being pareve. Live your life with passion. If you’re going to do something wrong, live with the guilt that you screwed up. Like it says in the parsha, “choose the curse!” Being embarrassed is a gift. Eventually, you’ll stop making the mistake if it makes you embarrassed. The only time you can’t fix yourself is when you justify your mistakes, and make them into good deeds. Living a life where you do what you want, and hope somewhere out there there’s a justification for what you’re doing, is living a life without purpose. There’s no thought, nothing compelling to explain what you do, or why you’re doing it. You’re being a sheep, mediocre, like everyone else.
The Torah in the same parsha says that the blessing that you choose is that you listen. Listen to what? A deep thought on that line says, “Listen to yourself.” Blessing and curse comes from our ability to listen to our conscience. There are some things in life we honestly don’t know. But there are many more things in life that we might know, or have a sense of, and chose not to listen. And that’s part of being human. But when we don’t listen, or don’t want to listen to what we know deep down is right, don’t pretend that we don’t know. Admit it. Sometimes the greatest thing a person can do is admit they made a mistake.
That lesson is the entire concept of the incoming month of Elul, the month that immediately proceeds Rosh Hashana. We have one month before G-d decides the fate of the world. The Torah says it’s a terrifying time. How can we know, how can we honestly say that we lived up to everything that was expected of us? The answer is we can’t. And that’s ok. G-d is called a father. Parents understand their kids make mistakes, and they forgive them, and they love them. But the thing that makes parents happy is when the kids, on their own, see their mistakes and misgivings, and come to the parents and say “I’m sorry, I screwed up.” To do that means taking a risk. It means having a position. It means seeing that the position you took wasn’t perfect, it was wrong and that’s ok. But then if you do that, it means you have to change. And sometimes that is the hardest thing of all.
****When it comes to passion over correctness, I was referring to life choices. Jewish law does have a system to dictate what law is correct, and we don’t choose the correct law. However, when it comes to our life choices that’s where we should be passionate instead of always correct****
Disclaimer: I’m the father of two gorgeous daughters and one awesome son. They’re all younger than six. That being said, I’m an ardent feminist, grandson, and son of feminists, proud husband and father. So I beg your patience with me when my thoughts might not parallel the current fads.
Before you reinvent yourself, imagine how you want to be perceived when you graduate.
Steven Covey calls it “Begin with the end in mind.” As it says in the Jewish poem L’cha Dodi, Shabbat was the last action but the first thought. In essence, everything in the beginning was created to facilitate the end. Before you do something, figure out where you want to go. As logical as this is, it is highly unpopular today for one reason: it requires you to be responsible and disciplined in achieving your long term goals at the expense of your short term ones and/or your immediate desires.
A personal antidote: I spent my first year in college trying to be everything I wasn’t in high school. In a word, “cool.” Then, after some “soul searching,” I spent my senior year convincing my contemporaries that the wild frat man (or as close as one could get to that at UCSD) wasn’t really me at all. So who was I? Truth is, I’m still figuring it out. But I wasted a lot of time trying to develop a persona that I knew I didn’t want to be. What’s the proof that I knew I didn’t want to be the person I tried to be? I remember one day in high school going with a friend of mine to deliver something now legal in Seattle to his older brother, a thirty year old entrepreneur. All I could think to myself was, “Wow, I don’t want to be doing this stuff for fun when I’m older.” I knew that the party man wasn’t where I wanted to be long-term. I’d venture to say most of you know it’s not where you want to be as well.
So why do we do it? Mostly to reject or reframe or fit in. The problem is that when you live as someone you aren’t, it’s harder to shake people’s initial perception of you than you might think. “Who cares what people think of you?” you might ask. YOU do. We’re very social animals, and how people perceive us matters to all but the most socially unconscious. So imagine how you want to be when you graduate. Do you want to be a leader? Confident? Set in a path towards greatness? Above the “freshman nonsense” that so many upper classmen talk to me about? So act like that now, and you’ll find yourself becoming what you want, instead of becoming what works just for now.
You don’t need a boyfriend/girlfriend.
Well, this is uncomfortable. Of course you think you don’t NEED one. Do you really feel like you don’t need one? Ok, so then how about getting into a relationship if one so-to-speak comes along? Now imagine a relationship doesn’t come along, but everyone else seems to pair up. Maybe you’re in the friend zone and want out. Do you really not need a relationship?
The world tells us that college is the time for young men and women to meet. Not to date per say, like we did in my day, because the youth are too cultured for that. But maybe to “hang out.” And be friends. And beneficial friends. And then have the talk. Then have more benefits. Soon the Facebook status changes from single to “discussing an exclusive contract.” It could even go to full on “exclusive.” And once the relationship is exclusive, then comes the drama. Quickly it becomes too much for one, and not enough for the other. She’s all over the place with her friends, and he’s too clingy. Or vice versa. And what about grad school? Or a job in Texas? What about that? What’s more important, my girlfriend or my future trajectory?
This of course brings up another fundamental issue. Who do you chose to date? Does it matter where they are going long term? Or who they are, what their background is, or their religious affiliations? Since you don’t know where you’re going, can you date anyone as long as they are cute, funny, or will give you attention? Do you settle or lower your expectations to what is available around you?
A few pointers here. Relationships require a crucial ingredient called commitment. If you aren’t ready to commit, you aren’t ready to date. Not because you can’t, but because you can’t be in a successful relationship (for both people…that’s implied by ‘relationship’) until you’re all in. The other person’s needs are more important than your own. What he or she wants is your OBLIGATION to oblige. It’s not about being happy or being comfortable in the short term. Go ask any old (or not even old) happy couple how much of their lives they spent pursuing their own happiness or their own needs. Most likely, if they’re happily dating/married, it won’t be too long. Once you find that person that you want to commit to, you MUST make their needs more important than yours. And yes, they have to do the same for you. “BUT WHAT IF THEY DON’T???” people ask me. Not your problem.
See, Judaism is based on obligations, America is based on rights. Americans say “what is my right?” In other words, “what is owed to me?” Judaism is based on obligations, or “what is owed to the other.” As much as I love this country, rights lead to wars. And if my history serves me correctly, Judaism as a world view hasn’t facilitated any wars in the last two thousand or more years. Sure we’ve had to fight, but we didn’t start it. To avoid wars, or even drama, do what the other person wants happily. You’ll be shocked how fast they will want to take care of you.
Once you find yourself obligated to another, you’ll love them more. You’ll be happier. Heartache and upset will be all but squashed. BUT, it requires you to commit. Which means you have to know what you want and be ok with what you have. And also not settle. For freshman that is SERIOUS business because everyone claims they aren’t ready for it. Ok! So see rule number 2. Boyfriend and girlfriend imply exclusivity and commitment. Hooking up means offering what people used to pay for in commitment and nice dinners, for free. It devalues you and what you’re offering. EVEN if it’s fun for you for the moment. Being in a relationship means locking yourself into putting their needs first. For most people, that’s too much this early in life.
There are no substitutes, even though it looks like there are.
A body next to you doesn’t mean you’ll feel connected. A room full of people doesn’t mean you’re having fun. So-called “benefits” doesn’t mean you aren’t being used, and definitely doesn’t mean that you’re being respected. A degree in your hand doesn’t mean you’ll be proud of it if you didn’t do the work. An internship doesn’t mean you’ll have someone ready to hand you a job. And a job doesn’t mean you’ll find meaning in life. And even if you think you’ve found meaning in life, it might not be what life is all about.
Everyone knows these ideas are true. But deep down inside, everyone hopes they are lies. The brilliance of marketing and advertising is in creating and framing the reality in which the potential customer lives. For all of his genius, Steve Jobs was a master marketer—that was how he changed the world. The reason why Apple is what it is, or Coke, or Porsche, or Tory Burch, is because the company CREATED the image we have of it. As Macklemore said (with our without the long nose and beard), “Fifty dollars for a t-shirt…I call that getting tricked by a business.” Yes, I own more shirts with Alligators on them than I’d like to mention, and I convince myself they’re better than the ones Costco sells for $14.99. But are they really? Well, only because I delude myself to thinking an alligator on my shirt means I’m a trendy, successful gentleman.
College, and the lifestyle attached to it, is all about marketing. Just try to keep it in mind. I sat with someone who explained to me how cocaine makes you have a great time. I was like, “what’s wrong with just having a great time without the cocaine?” He told me you couldn’t party as hard. I replied “who says a person is supposed to party that hard?” He didn’t have a great response. In one of my many walks late at night on Landfair Avenue trying to find someone to turn down the EDM or Drake or whatever the flavor of the month is so my children could sleep, I overheard a girl say to her friend-zoned male escort, “Ew, I always get groped when I go to parties at such-and-such a place!” I think to myself, “if I would go somewhere and get groped, I’d never go back!” I was sober though, so that made sense. Why would people repeatedly do things that aren’t fun with the hope that one day they will have fun?
I’ll come out and say it. Drinking gives the impression you’re having more fun than you are. Hooking up makes you think you’re more valuable in someone’s eyes than you might be. You feel like you have more worth than if you were to go home alone. Understand that marketing frames reality for the buyer. It doesn’t make it true. Value, meaning, and happiness all has to come from inside.
Invest in yourself now, not in your future.
If you’re always looking ahead, you’ll never take the steps you need for now. As John Lennon said 800 years ago, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” As Al Pacino said, “football and life is a game of inches.” In college we train ourselves to throw for the end zone. We think and focus on what CAREER we want, and which INTERNSHIP we need to get. A dear student of mine laments, “everyone’s got it figured out but me.” What does she mean? She means everyone else seems to have their long term plans intact.
Looking too far ahead is dumb. The Talmud says, “Don’t plan for tomorrow, because maybe you’re planning for someone else’s tomorrow.” Certainly I’m not advocating we should all be James Dean and “Live like you’ll get rich and die trying” (I’m kidding-just seeing if you’re still reading). James Dean said “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
We need to live like we’ll live forever. Living forever means there are consequences to what we do. We need to live a life we’ll one day be proud to share with our kids. There’s a secret to life. You never reach an age where it is easy to do the right thing. If you don’t make a habit of doing the right thing now, you won’t do it when you’re older. Maturity is a decision, not an age.
Dreaming like you’ll die today means to dream big. Too often, we dream wayyyyy too shallow. We don’t have dreams. And if we do, how big do we dream? The greatest potential we have is right now. Our future isn’t here yet, and our past is over. We can do anything now—today. We can make good choices or bad choices. Dreaming like we’ll die today means that we should dream about being great now, making the right choices now, and not thinking that somewhere down the road we’ll become great.
Donald Trump is famous for saying if you’re going to dream, dream big. Do we do that? Do we tell ourselves that today is my big day? I only have today, so I’m going to be happy and go for it? That’s called investing in yourself, now. Whatever things you aren’t great at, work on them today! If you’re not happy, or don’t have good self-esteem, admit it today and figure out a way to get there. If you’re not happy, or can’t make decisions, or don’t have clarity, even if you do get the dream job, house, or life, those parts of you that you don’t like about yourself won’t go away. You have to work on them now.
In short, you don’t know where you want to be when you’re forty. And even if you know how you want to make your money, there’s more to life than career. To be successful in life, you have to work on YOU, not just your future income stream. And that kind of work can and should be done today.
Be proud of who you are, and where you come from.
College for many is a jump into a much broader world. It is exciting and fun to broaden your horizons. However, a lot of times we compare ourselves to others in this much larger pool of people. We wonder why we aren’t as smart, fit, popular, well-adjusted, fearless, etc. as the next guy. We look at our world as too small and compact, and that the broad world is so much more intelligent and cultured than ours. The theme song I hear is “I want to broaden my horizons, Rabbi.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good to broaden. But broaden doesn’t mean dumping who you are or where you come from. A fundamental teaching of Judaism is that you have all the tools you need, and the place where you find yourself in life, is exactly where you need to be. R’ Nachman of Breslov says that the moment you were born was the moment that the entire cosmic structure would not be complete without you. Little you, with all your imperfections. There will never be another like you again. You are rarer than the rarest diamond. In all of human history there has never been you, and in the future there will never be another you. You are important.
There’s an idea that G-d only gives us what we can handle. That means that anything that happens to us in life is tailor-made for us, and we can handle it. Maybe it seems more than we can handle, but the fact that it happened proves we can overcome the challenge. We can solve all our problems. And we’re unique. And fantastic. And who cares what other people have, or can do. What matters is you, and who you are.
The Jewish people are very old, yet vibrant. We’ve seen it all. We’ve survived it all. As Mark Twain writes, “the only thing immortal is the Jew.” It’s a crazy idea, but we’ve been around for a long time. In that long time, we’ve learned and experimented with every other religion, philosophy, and social milieu that has popped up. And we’ve been phenomenally successful in most of them. But since said concepts and ideals aren’t immortal like us, they haven’t sustained us, and the Jewish purveyors of those philosophies have seen their own children and grandchildren looking for another way to find meaning.
Yet this year, come Rosh Hashanah, Jews will listen to the same sounds from the same instruments that they did 3,000 years ago. And believe it or not, we’ll be listening to the same instrument on the same day for the next 3,000 years. It’s a powerful idea. So maybe there’s something to be said to looking in our own backyard before we look in someone else’s. Be proud of who you are, and what nation you come from. Without demeaning anyone else, the Bible calls us a nation of priests and royalty. It says we are beloved to G-d.
To wax poetic but perhaps contemporary, I remember as a kid watching a rabbi telling a kid from the project that he was a prince. I related to that. Not because you can call my enclave of suburb a project. The only projects I knew about were the ones I did in school. But the idea of inspiring the youth to see their own inherent cultural greatness was something I loved. I tried to do that a little in my own life for others, because people did that for me.
Then, of course, after the long rant, I’d tell my kids I love them, I am proud of them. Because of both who they are now and who they will become.