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To Be Yourself

Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve

September 15, 2012 • 1 Tishrei 5773

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

Two hands reaching for each other.

I want to share a brief story with you. A few hundred years ago, there was a rabbi named Zusya who lived in Hanipoli, Ukraine. He was known for his kindness, generosity, and wisdom. Students came from far away to learn from him.

One day, Zusya did not appear to his students at the usual time. They waited for hours. By evening, they feared that something terrible had happened. They rushed to Zusya’s house. One of them knocked on the door, but no one answered. He knocked more loudly. Finally, they heard a weak voice say, “Shalom aleichem, peace be with you. Come in.” They entered, and saw the rabbi lying in bed, too ill to get up, with tears rolling down his face.

“Rabbi Zusya!” one of the students cried. “What happened?”

“I am dying,” answered Zusya. “And I am very frightened.”

“Why are you afraid?” another student asked. “You, who have been like Moses in your own time? What do you have to fear?”

The rabbi answered in a quiet voice, “When I come before God, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. God will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya.”

The students were silent. They understood Zusya’s final lesson.

To be more like Zusya, for me, to be more like Bridget… to be more like yourself. What does that mean? Something different for each one of us, and that is the beauty of it.

Jewish tradition teaches that each of us is here for a reason. It wants us to understand and cherish the uniqueness of every human soul, to know that if there were anyone else exactly like us in the world, there’d be no need for us to be born.

According to Judaism, we are not born as sinners. Each of us comes into the world with the potential for good and for bad. It is the choices we make that shape our lives more towards one, or the other.

These two teachings offer us two tasks for our lives. First, to discover our own particular gifts and talents, different from those of anyone else. Second, to use these talents for good, in ways that make the world better. And, our tradition teaches, this is a pathway to joy.

Viewed in this way, our lives are not about success or failure, about being as smart as, making as much money as, or being as attractive as whoever we might compare ourselves to.

The world needs you, and me -- not another Moses.

Why don’t more of us offer our gifts, naturally, and joyfully? What gets in the way?

I don’t know who your “Moses,” is, the person you think you should be like, but I know many people I have compared myself to. “If only I could be as (fill in the blank) as him, or her.” Usually these thoughts don’t help me make better choices. They make me envious, sometimes over things that matter, but more often, over things that don’t.

What a waste, to watch one another and long to be someone else, when the world needs you!

What else gets in the way? Oddly enough, fear. Why be afraid of bringing our particular gifts, the things we are best at, into the world? Because, as long as we don’t offer out truest selves, when we are criticized, when we feel that we’ve failed, it isn’t so bad, since it’s not really us.

What a loss. Not only for each of us, who suffer when our talents go unused, but even more so, for the world, which needs what we could give.

We probably cannot rid ourselves entirely of our envy and our fear that block us from being who we could be. Even Rabbi Zusya, so wise and respected, was not always himself, and this brought him to tears.

Let me share a possible way out of this dilemma. Our envy and our fears make us focus on ourselves, on the ways we could fail, or be hurt. But Judaism tells us to focus instead on generosity, on what we can offer to others. This may sound like self-deprivation, but in fact, it is the opposite. When our desire to give can grow bigger than our fears, then we may be able to have the courage to offer our unique gifts.

Think for a moment. What does Zusya’s story say to you, tonight? What are your special talents that you haven’t fully shared? How could they contribute to the world, physically, or spiritually? Picture it.

Now, hold this vision in your mind.

Can you make this image, this very reason that you were born, bigger than your fears? Probably not in an instant, but, perhaps, in small steps.

That is how the turning of the year is meant to work. We look deeply into ourselves. We look also at where we are needed. We envision the ways we can turn, bit by bit, in that direction.

It often takes a crisis for us to realize all that we not shared. This is also what the New Year is for. To see how we could live, and begin to follow that path, without having to wait for a crisis.

Finally, we gather at the New Year to remember that we are not alone. Imagine, if you held on to your vision of all you could share, if those around you did the same. This is not beyond our powers. It is what we are here to do.

Not to be like Moses, but to be ourselves.


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