Ben Herman
Building Community, One Person at a Time

Reinventing Ourselves

Learning Never Ends. This was the line that Adon Morgan, my middle school Judaics teacher, wrote in my yearbook. It is so true. The minute we stop learning we become terminal. The rabbinate is one of the few fields with no mandatory continuing education, yet I have made a point of studying every week with two different hevrutot (study partners) to refine my knowledge and grow in my skills. I rarely use what I have learned in those sessions for sermons or classes. Rather it is Torah lishma, Torah study for its own sake.

One of the fun things I do, which perhaps I shouldn’t, is asking Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids what do you want to be when you grow up, knowing they’ll likely change their minds numerous times. “I think it’s one of the most pointless questions we ask children,” Michelle Obama writes. “What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. At some point you will become something and that’s the end.” As comedian Chris Rock asserts, “You can be anything you wanna be?!” “Tell the kids the truth…You can be anything you’re good at…as long as they’re hiring.” [1]

This reminds me of one the first conversations I had with a therapist. He asked me, “What will you be when you retire?” I looked at him incredulously and said, “I’m not retiring for decades.” He replied, “That’s the point-your identity has become so tied up in being Rabbi and not in being Ben Herman.”

Often, we think that our identities are fixed, whether professionally (the lawyer, accountant, engineer), personally (the cool guy, the nerd, the social butterfly) or by status (rich, poor, middle class). The truth is that very little is set in stone. Some of our personal makeup is genetic but other aspects are learned behavior based on grit, perseverance, and willpower, or lack thereof. Our roles as spouse, parent, child, and sibling are fixed, but we determine how we want to play those roles.

Yom Kippur reminds us that our story is not finished being written, and neither is our identity finished being formed. This is countercultural and powerful. It goes against the studies that our personalities become fixed and immutable by age 7, that by then we are magically hard-wired exactly as we are in that moment. Instead, we should ask ourselves the following: “Where did you form the aspirations you are currently pursuing, and how have you changed since then?”[2]

My teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Ben-David, formerly of the PARDES Institute and founder of Ayeka,[3] taught me that just as we have physical check-ups, so do we need identity check-ups (creating a personal mission statement which we re-examine and see if it’s still true or if our aspirations have changed), spiritual check-ups (how is our relationship with God right now?) and career check-ups (is my career still giving me satisfaction or is it time to pivot?). Bet Shira NetWORKS can help with the latter.

There’s a story by Israeli Nobel Laureate SY Agnon called “The Tallit.” A man is deciding which of two tallitot he should wear for Shabbat. The first tallit is from the old world, celebrating his European heritage. The second tallit is from the new world, honoring his new identity as an Israeli. He deliberates and deliberates, unable to make a choice, and in the end, he misses synagogue.

We relate to this story. How often have we been paralyzed, uncertain what to do or which path to follow? How many times have we been indecisive, missing out on opportunities? We need to recognize that while there are endless moments to reinvent ourselves over the course of the year, to try something new or make a difference, we must take a step forward to do so, jumping into the pool even without certainty as to what will follow. As the rock band Rush teaches, “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”[4] We can examine this from so many angles: the political gridlock, the inability to move beyond our past into our present, the difficulty in making communal decisions. In the end, tension, uncertainty, and internal conflict are integral parts of reinventing ourselves. We will never have complete knowledge if a decision we make was the best possibility-all we can do is examine the situation at hand to determine where we are at and how we want to move forward. It’s ok to recognize that we don’t have the answer to the big questions of our lives, but that should not stop us from trying to reinvent ourselves when the moment is right.

Rabbi Irwin Kula writes in his book Yearnings, “Certainty is seductive; our culture rewards knowing and makes not-knowing a liability; but about the important things in life, it may well be the opposite. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be-it can lead to arrogance, boredom, complacency and dullness.”[5] We often adopt the adage ‘better the devil we know than the devil we don’t.’ Yet Estelle Frankel teaches us, “Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar is rooted in our uniquely human awareness of mortality. Our ability to remember and learn from the past is useful in many situations, but it can also be problematic, especially when fears rooted in the past prevent us from seeing clearly in the moment. Our tendency is to foreclose on the present moment by coloring it with fearful overlays from the past. It seems that the ancient mind would rather imagine the worst than wait and be surprised by what life actually presents.” [6]

This Yom Kippur, let us be open to trying new things in the journey of life. May we not be afraid to reinvent ourselves even when it means venturing into the unknown, for there is nothing certain about what the next day will bring. If we have fears from past failures, let us not let those define us but rather recognize the person we’ve grown into and are becoming (for we are always in the process of becoming) at this present moment. At times in life, one needs the courage not only to change but also to reinvent oneself to adapt to new situations. It might sound scary, but it’s part of the adventure of finding our mission and true purpose in life.

[1] Adam Grant Think Again (New York: Viking, 2021), p. 230.

[2] Ibid, 233.

[3] Hebrew word meaning “Where are you?”

[4] Song “Freewill” by Rush

[5] Rabbi Irwin Kula, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (New York: Hachette Books, 2006), pgs. 87-88.

[6] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder and Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder: Shambhala, 2017), pg. 9.

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman is the Senior Rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California. He has previously created initiatives and helped implement programs such as Drive In Shabbat, a Drive Through Sukkah, a student-led musical service called Friday Night Live, Shabbat on the Beach, and the United Synagogue Schechter Award-winning Hiking and Halacha. Rabbi Herman also serves on the Rabbinical Assembly's Conversion Commission as well as its Derech Eretz and Social Action Committees. He is a Mahloket Matters Fellow with PARDES and has previously been part of JOIN for Justice's Community Organizing Fellowship as well as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's Clergy Leadership Program. Rabbi Herman's focus is growing the membership through outreach and relational Judaism, including creating Havurot, implementing engaging programming and enhancing the Educational and Young Family programs at Mosaic Law. Rabbi Herman earned a Bachelors Degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies with Comprehensive Honors in 2005 and received Rabbinic Ordination with a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. Rabbi Herman married Karina in June 2014, and the two of them are very excited to be living in Sacramento and in California, Karina's home state. They welcomed daughters Ariela Shira in February 2016 and Leora Rose in December 2018.
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