Frank Sinatra famously sang, “I traveled each and every high way . . . but more, much more than this . . . I did it my way.”
The song struck a chord especially in the West because it acknowledged an uncanny truth. Despite our limitations, despite our failures, we each have an independent streak somewhere deep inside. We take unabashed pride in taking our chances, in asserting our independence, and doing things “my way.” It’s not always pretty, it’s not always perfect, but we get it done and we get it done “my way.” “For what is a man, what has he got . . . if not himself, then he has not . . . the right to say, the things he feels. . . and not the words of one who kneels . . .The record shows, I took the blows . . . and did it my way.”
A Time for Everything
There is a time for individualism and a time for collectivism. When danger beckons and the nation is in peril, the people are summoned dismiss their private interests and take up the cause of patriotism. In the swell of national pride, individualism fades away.
However, we cannot maintain that level of collective inspiration for long. Wars are won by the collective, but countries are built by individuals. Each farmer plants his crop, each builder stakes his claim, each entrepreneur chases her dream. The socialist idea to build a country in the spirit of collectivism, failed miserably. Countries are built by each of us doing it “my way”. The’ every day’ is built by ‘every person’; by the particularism of individuals doing it “my way.”
The same applies to every day life. There are times where we are summoned to greatness, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. When a friend is in desperate straits, we set aside our own needs and support them. But we can’t maintain that altruism forever. After a while, normalcy returns and we each return to our own lives. Each under his vine and each under his fig.
A Nation Arrives
In the desert, the Jewish people were a collective; you can’t express your individuality when you are en-route. They chose neither their direction nor encampments, the times of their arrivals nor departures. They all ate the same food and slept in the same campsite. It was a time of national collectivism.
To be sure, trivets of tribalism snaked across their columns. Each tribe had its own flag and its own section in the camp. However, tribal identities were not all that distinct. The sections comprised a single campsite and their assigned sections were all alike. People traveled across tribal sections and visited each other frequently. The time in the desert was all about the nation, it was not about the individual.
Then they arrived in Israel, where the land was divided according to tribal affiliations and each family received its own vine and fig tree. People settled in to build their own homestead and leave their individual mark. It was time for them to assert their independence and do things “my way”. Not all houses were alike and not all neighborhoods were equal. Some were wealthy others were poor, some were grand and others simple, but they all had an individual stamp. “Yes, there were times, I am sure you knew, when I bit off, more than I could chew, I faced it all, and I stood tall, and did it “my way.”
The Spiritual My Way
No two minds are alike, and no two personalities are the same. When G-d created us, He poured a different mold for each of us. He did it deliberately. He chose to give us each a set of skills and talents, weaknesses and strengths, that enable us to perform our particular task. When we ask ourselves, what that task is, we need look no further than our personalities. We ask what we are good at, and the answer to that, is the role that G-d assigned for us to play.
Not all roles are alike, some are grand and others simple, some are glorious and others minor, but they are each unique and they are each our own. They are “my way.” It is not the “my way” that Sinatra sang of; not the pigheaded pride that we take in stumbling through life as long as we stumble “my way”. It is the road that G-d paved for each of us to walk. It is the plan that G-d devised for each of us. We each have a way, and G-d intends for us to walk it “my way.”
There are great scholars and heroes who stand up front and collect all the glory. And then there is us; quietly doing our thing. But we are not in this game for adoration and honor. We are here to walk, to the best of our ability, the walk that G-d assigned to us. It might not be pretty, and it might not be grand, but it is unique and no one can walk it quite like us. It is, in every sense of the word, “my way”.
More important, it is critical to the overall effort. If we neglect our part, the collective effort will be defective. We can’t just walk away; if we don’t do our task, it will remain undone. In the film Schindler’s List, there is a scene where Oskar Schindler is challenged by a Nazi on why little children were working in his factory. Schindler points to the child’s skinny little finger and replies, “Where else will I find a finger that can clean the inside of a shell casing?” Although Schindler fabricated that answer, we can learn from it. It might be a small and inglorious job, but it is critical to the overall effort. We take pride in the fact that without “my way” the collective way would never get paved.
There are times when we rise to the occasion and let the depth of our soul, our intrinsic commitment to all that is holy and noble, shine. When we shed our proud individualism and are overcome by the intense spirituality of the collective. The closing moments of Yom Kippur carry that power as do the somber moments of Rosh Hashanah when the Shofar is sounded. At times, we are so deeply touched by a sense of love or devotion that we cast our individuality aside and revel in the happiness of another with perfect and absolute joy.
These moments are glimpses into a higher self; the core shared equally by us all. But these moments are fleeting. They come to inspire us, but then they leave, and we return to our path. To walk our inspired walk, to reach our unique goal, to fulfill our exclusive task, and to fulfill it uniquely in “my way.”