Today, I couldn’t help noticing a lady I know in synagogue with something different about her. On her arm, she had a big prominent tattoo that said: “Am Yisrael Chai” (Israel Lives). Interested to learn more, I asked her what made her decide to get this, and she said,
I’m no youngster, but I had a dream! In the dream, I saw these words and I just knew that I needed to do this!
Sometimes, there is just something inside or outside us that calls to us, and we somehow know that it’s who we are or need to become, and it’s part of the fulfillment of ourselves.
In the Torah portion this week, Vayechi, Jacob before his death blesses each of his sons. The sons didn’t all get the same blessing, but different ones according to who they were. According to Rabbi Schneur Kaplan, this is because in Judaism, we are not meant to all be the same, but rather to fulfill our individual potential within the framework of our Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Kaplan explained that if you look at the “blessings” of the twelve tribes, not all of them even look like blessings. For example, Reuven, the eldest, was stripped of his birthright to both the kingship of Israel (which went to Judah) and the priesthood (which went to Levi). So how is that a blessing? The Rabbi answered that is what good parenting is. Jacob saw his sons for who they were as opposed to what he thought they should be. Reuven wasn’t cut out for leadership, but instead was more geared towards creativity, asceticism, and shepherding, and there is a rightful place for that and a place in Judaism for all of us to be who we are!
Parents often want their children to fill some void in themselves, and they goad or force their children to soccer, tennis, or swimming practice or to the Ivy League university or the profession that they think is best, never even looking at or considering who their children really are inside. That’s a parenting challenge—to see past our wants and needs and instead to do what is really good for our children as they are and not as we are. In fact, Rabbi Kaplan said that the Rebbe never asked about a person’s lineage. It didn’t matter if you were the son or daughter of a great rabbinic dynasty or of the local tailor or baker. What’s important is not where you come from, but rather where you are going.
Even while we are each different and should become our best selves, we still all need to make sure we are driving towards good healthy goals. This past week at a Tanya (chassidic philosophy) class with Rabbi Moishe Kavka, he taught that we are made up of both the physical self as well as the soul, and each of these fight to control us. The physical wants to satisfy our material needs and cravings, get immediate gratification, and are greedy for ever more. In contrast, the neshamah (or spiritual soul) seeks the eternal well-being of our spiritual soul and our connection with G-d and holiness. As the Tanya says:
For the body is called a ‘small city.’ The two souls [physical and spiritual] are just as two kings who wage war over a city, which each wishes to capture and dominate.
So in becoming our best, we still need to keep in mind overcoming our pure physical desires and look for how we can nourish our spiritual essence. We can become first-class politicians, brilliant scientists, doctors, and engineers, talented musicians and performers, Olympic athletes, courageous IDF warriors, or hard-working farmers, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers. And at the same time, we can be good people ,caring for our families and communities, and having an intimate and meaningful relationship with Hashem.
In short, there is no one-size-fits-all mold for us. Hashem has a destiny in mind for each of us, and we need to find out what that is and work to become it. As parents, we need to see our children for who they are and not who we may want them to be. Truly, it’s a blessing to be able to be ourselves! As long as we and they are doing good in the world and by our Creator, we are each and everyone on solid Jewish ground. Let’s all become our very best selves and that will take us toward the coming of Mashiach and the conclusion of our great redemption.