Living into the Mission of Our Lives
What are our greatest fears?
One of the more paralyzing of human fears is the fear of failure, the profound anxiety that we are neither capable nor talented, that our efforts to achieve in this world will bear no fruit. And yet there are times in our lives when what is most frightening is not our inadequacy but our capacity and potential for good.
In a striking and radical reading of the words of the High Holiday liturgy, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel (d. 1935), asks us to confront our own power and the responsibility of responding to the unique mission of our individual lives.
A refrain from the prayers on Yom Kippur reads: “Elohai, My God—before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed.” Traditionally, the sentiment of these words is one ofself-effacement: “I am nothing. I was nothing before I was created and now that I have been created, I am still nothing.” The implications of this sentence are clear: “God—in your great mercy—please show compassion on me. Though I am unworthy, forgive me for my missteps.” Rav Kook rejected this reading and the anthropology it expressed. Rather, he creatively turned this reading of this prayer on its head, explaining the words as follows:Elohai, My God—before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed—I continue to live my life as if I had not been formed. That is to say, now that I have been created I have failed to live up to the potential of my life that you God have given me. I have failed to act on my strengths and talents, I have failed to pursue my mission in life and I tragically continue to live “as if I had not been formed” and given a unique mission.
Rav Kook suggests that at the moment we recite these words on Yom Kippur, we acknowledge that something has gotten in the way of our entering into the ultimate work and purpose of our existence. Through our inaction—living our lives as if we had never been formed—we fail to understand ourselves as shelihim; as having been given a unique mission in the world.
The contemporary Hassidic master Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (z”l), the Slonimer Rebbe, emphasized this idea of a unique personal mission as a central teaching of this Shabbat’s Torah reading (see his discussion in Netivot Shalom).
Before reuniting with Esau after years of avoidance, Jacob famously wrestles with a stranger on the bank of the Jabbok River in a struggle that will transform him into the man we now know as Israel. When the stranger senses that he will be unable to prevail against Jacob, he strikes and dislocates Jacob’s thighbone. Still unable to vanquish Jacob, the assailant cries out, “Send me away (shalheni) because (ki) dawn is breaking” (Gen. 32:27).
The Rabbis of the Talmud are curious about the relationship between the first half of this sentence and the second. Why does this stranger demand to be sent away now that dawn is breaking? What’s the urgency? Where is he going? The Rabbis suggest an unrecorded dialogue between Jacob and his sparring partner. Jacob demands to know, “Why must you run away at daybreak? Are you a thief or are you a kidnapper who fears the dawn?”
At this moment Jacob’s opponent confesses: “I am an angel and from the day that I was created, my turn to recite song to God has not arrived until this moment.” Now aware of the heavenly being’s identity, Jacob demands a blessing before agreeing to send the angel off.
The Slonimer Rebbe builds on this midrash found in the Talmud and weaves a beautiful narrative that complements the biblical text. This angel that struggled with Jacob, like other celestial beings, was created by the Divine with a single mission tasked with a particular shelihut. Each angel becomes worthy of singing a song to God only upon the completion of this unique mission for which he was created and sent into the world. This angel was given the task of testing Jacob. His personal shelihut was to attempt to derail Jacob from a life in service to God and going to Esau to make peace; his unique mission was to challenge Jacob to the point where the patriarch would fully affirm his commitment to God and the Covenant. Thus, as their physical struggle drew to a close at daybreak, the angel realized that he had completed his unique purpose in the drama of Creation. Now, he could come before God and sing a new song. His time had finally arrived (hegia zemani). With the dawning of the new day, and having completed his life’s mission, he begs Jacob to send him off so that he can greet the new day with song.
But it’s the Slonimer’s next interpretive step that interests us most. Having explained the angel’s curious request—“Send me away because dawn is breaking”—the Slonimer makes an audacious claim: what is true for angels is true for human beings. Every human being has a distinct and particular role to play in the world. Every human being is ultimately a shaliah—an agent—of the Divine. Every human being has a particular shelihut, a mission in the world that only she or he can realize. No one can ever fulfill someone else’s unique role in creation. If someone falls short and does not do the work they were tasked with performing in the world, then this contribution will be lost forever. Every individual is unique and her or his particular role in the world irreplaceable.
This message of the special role that all individuals have to play in the movement of history appropriately finds a special place in our parashah. Jacob and Esau, from before they even emerged from the womb, tussled for advantage. They emerged into the world in an embrace of competition with Jacob holding on to Esau’s heel. And this struggle for attention did not seem to let up. They compete for the same position, the same blessings, their whole lives. Jacob is so caught up in his competition with Esau that he literally tries to become Esau. Jacob is in danger of missing out on his life and the blessings that he alone can bring to the world. After wrestling with this angel, he is able to separate himself from the struggle that has long tormented him. He no longer is simply Jacob, the man who is intertwined in his brother’s life. Jacob now has been blessed with the nameIsrael, finally beginning to become the person he is meant to be. Jacob—as Israel—is ready to enter into his unique mission in the world and let Esau pursue his unique shelihut. Life is not a zero-sum enterprise. Jacob, after years of living out an unproductive drama, is finally ready to let go of Esau and become the man he is meant to be.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.