JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review August 9, 1999 / 28 Elul, 5759

Jonathan Rosenblum

Many Ways to be a Jew

IN MUSAF OF ROSH HASHANAH, we find a description of G-d's "remembrance'': "When the remembrance of every created being comes before you -- every person's deeds and mission...'' The term "deeds'' refers to a person's observance of the commandments. But what is meant by a person's "mission?''

There is no Jew without his or her own individual task. That task can be performed by no one else, for no one else was born with precisely the same configuration of strengths and weaknesses, no one else is born into the same family at precisely the same moment or into the same historical situation, and no one else confronts the same challenges and tests in life.

"Just as no two faces are alike, so too no two people share the same way of thinking,'' our Sages tell us. And the Imrei Emes of Ger explained, "Just as we cannot blame someone else for the fact that he does not look like us, so too we cannot blame him if he thinks differently from us.'' Both a person's face and his manner of thought are aspects of his individuality. Each person is unique because G-d created him that way, and to complain of that uniqueness is to complain of the Creator Himself.


Because each Jew is a world unto himself and absolutely singular so is his task in life unique. That task is the "mission'' referred to in the Zichronos section of Musaf.

Our preparation for Rosh Hashana requires reflecting deeply on what makes us unique -- identifying what strengths we possess and what weaknesses are still to be overcome. We examine our lives with the goal of discovering our assigned role in the Divine plan. Our question is: How can I reveal the potential for holiness inherent in every aspect of the Creation through my life?

We might think that so long as we have kept our sins to a minimum that we are destined for a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah. But the Midrash makes clear that our fulfillment of our appointed task is no less determinative. The Midrash recounts the story of Navat the Carmelite, who was put to death by Queen Jezebel. Navat was a completely righteous man, who refused to sell his vineyard to Jezebel. How can I sell that which G-d gave to my forefathers? he told her. As a consequence, Jezebel hired false witnesses to testify against Navat, and he was put to death.

The Midrash asks: How could such a righteous man have come to such a terrible end? And the Midrash answers that Navat had a uniquely beautiful voice. Each festival those going up to Jerusalem looked forward to hearing his beautiful prayers. One year, however, Navat did not come thereby disappointing all those who eagerly anticipated listening to his prayers. That year he was put to death by Jezebel. When a person does not use the gifts that G-d has given him in the manner intended, the Midrash teaches us, he or she has no further reason to live.

The Jewish people together constitute a potential symphony orchestra of praise to G-d. No Jew is born without an instrument or the ability to play it.

Recently a 21-year-old yeshiva student passed away in Jerusalem. As a young boy he contracted a virus that left his heart permanently weakened. In his late teens, his doctors told him that any moment his heart could give out. He entreated them not to share this information with his parents to avoid worrying them.

Leiters Sukkah

Yet despite the sword hanging over his head, he was considered the most cheerful student in his yeshiva -- the one to whom other boys turned when they needed encouragement or advice. On the first day of Elul, he arrived in the yeshiva an hour earlier than anyone else in order to be there to greet the new students. The whole day was spent arranging study partners for the new students, helping them find their rooms, introducing them to older students. Finally, in the late afternoon, he went up to his room to rest from his exertions. He never awakened.

Now the role assigned that young man is not one any of us would choose for himself. But who can deny that he was a first violinist? How many of us, even if we live long lives, will ever do so much to reveal the potential for holiness with which each of us was created.

Last year a young mother died after a long, painful battle with cancer, leaving behind a large family. Until she was in her early twenties, she did not even know she was Jewish. Yet she reached such a level of closeness with G-d that she could tell a neighbor a few days before her passing that she was struggling with Fear of G-d. G-d's love for her was so palpable, she said, that she could not maintain the requisite distance and awe.

She was given a solo, and she played it to the hilt.

But if every Jew is born with his or her own instrument and the potential to play exquisite music, there are still two conditions for being part of the philharmonic. The first is recognizing the Conductor. That does not mean an occasional, darting glance in His direction, but rather an unceasing effort to link one's playing with the Conductor's intentions.

Secondly, one must have a score. Our thoughts are of necessity not the thoughts of the infinite Conductor/Composer. Therefore we cannot fully discover the purpose of our lives or the means of attaining that purpose. Recognizing that, the Conductor provided us with a score and called it the Torah. Without that score there is no music, only cacophony.

Rabbi Levi of Berdichev was the great interceder on behalf of the Jewish people. One year when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, as this year, he stood before G-d and said: "Master of the Universe, the books of life and the books of death are opened before You. To write on Shabbos is forbidden. Yet to save a life writing is permitted, and so You can write in the Book of Life. But to write in the Book of Death is forbidden.''

May we all be inscribed this New Year for lives filled with soul music.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum