Often, as I make my way through the month of Elul and consider what teshuva (repentance, returning, self-improvement) will mean for me this year, I come back to two, simple Jewish texts. One is quite well-known; the other less so. Each offers a perspective on what a person should strive for, how to measure success and what it means to live well. Together, they capture what I see as a profound paradox of learning, living, striving and personal growth.
The 10th century Rabbinic commentary Tanna D’Bei Eliahu writes: “Every member of the Jewish People has an obligation to say: ‘When will my deeds reach the level of the deeds of my forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?’ ”
This text holds the deeds and character traits of others – in this case, our forefathers and, I would add, foremothers – as examples of how we want to live our lives. We need to be humble in the face of those who have come before us and to remember that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.
The text also reminds us to “mind the gap;” that is, to see the gap between how I act today and how I aspire to act, and then strive to close the gap; to be restless and unsatisfied in this effort, always asking, “When will I get there?”
Hundreds of years later, in the 18th century, while on his deathbed, the Hasidic Reb Zusia shared a different message with his students: “In the world to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our teacher); but rather, they will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusia?’
Zusia’s question reminds me of the book written by a palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” Or of the exercise at the beginning of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” in which he asks the reader to imagine his own funeral. It is not coincidental that Zusia offers this teaching on his deathbed, for it often requires coming to terms with our own mortality in order to see our lives, ourselves, and others, more clearly.
Our High Holiday liturgy understands this, and brings us through an emotional, sometimes frightening drama of confronting our fleetingness and contingency, perhaps most famously in the haunting “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer: “Who by fire? Who by water?” The prayer compels us to heighten our sensitivity and sensibility to our fragility and mortality as a powerful way to clarify what matters and then to motivate us to live lives that are more in line with that newly clarified sense of purpose. There is no time like the present to start being the person I want to be.
And, Zusia’s question is a counterbalance to the striving described centuries earlier in Tanna D’Bei Eliahu. While “the gap” should motivate us to strive to better ourselves, and while external role models and examples offer important guidance and inspiration, we need to be careful not to lose ourselves along the way. It is one thing to emulate the deeds or the values of others; it is another to want to be someone else, someone I am not.
Here, we need to mind a different gap, one that my teacher, Parker Palmer, describes as the gap, or disconnection, between role and soul. When we live and work in community, in relationships with others, we inevitably play important roles, which come with responsibilities, expectations, and opportunities for meaning, fulfillment and positive impact on others and the world. Sometimes, especially after many years of playing certain roles, we can sense a gap between the role we play or how others expect us to play it, and what feels true to who we are. This gap can be emotional, spiritual, or ethical. At worst, this gap can lead us far astray, into behaviors that are misaligned with any sense of moral clarity. More likely, this gap results in a subtle but growing disconnection between who I am on the outside and who I am on the inside.
Zusia reminds us that to live well and to be our best selves also means striving to close a gap – the gap between me and myself.
I love these two texts and how they can be taken together, because they offer different lenses on self-reflection and on the striving for which we aspire all year, and especially during this high holiday season. Paradoxically, I need to both stay true to the person I already am, and continually work to improve myself.
Over the past year, I have listened carefully to our community and been inspired by our collective capacity to hold this paradox. We are proud of what makes our community of communities unique, and deeply committed to preserving the integrity of the people, relationships and institutions that are the strong foundation on which we stand. We know who we are. And, as we look both inward and outward, we are motivated to change and improve ourselves, and to build an even stronger community and a better world.
May this holiday season give us the courage to see the gaps, the patience to stay in them, and the creativity and drive to close them.
Rabbi Marc Baker is the president and chief executive officer of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.