A person plants a small tree

FROM THE VINE: Embracing Aspiration and Ancestry

By Rabbi Josh Beraha

A profound duality exists at the heart of the High Holy Day season. On the one hand we’re to consider the entirety of creation. At Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the universe, we gaze outward toward our community, our nation, the entire global tapestry. We’re to consider society’s most marginalized individuals and groups and the source of the rot we see infecting so many aspects of our society; we ponder where it can be improved.

On the other hand, we’re to engage in self introspection, understanding our personal sins and how each of us can turn toward–in the words of Jacob Neusner– the “regeneration of the human condition as it was meant to be.” We’re to ask ourselves– who am I, and who do I want to be?

Our external gaze in the Micah community translates to tangible actions: our support for immigrant families through the work of Sukkat Shalom, our support for women grappling with substance dependency through the work of Micah House, or our prayers outside an abortion clinic. These actions infuse the public square with Jewish values, born from Judaism’s historic concern for all of life, and contribute to making the world a more tolerant, peaceful place.

And yet, our external posture in the world must be grounded in the self. As Rabbi Hillel famously put it, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Of course, turning inward can evoke self-indulgence or new-age self-care platitudes. “What am I doing for me today? A yoga class? A day at the spa?” But our tradition teaches that within each individual resides an entire, intricate universe. The Jewish Ukrainian writer, Vasily Grossman, captured this impulse when he wrote that when a person dies, their entire universe of experience dies too: [for the deceased] “the stars have disappeared from the night sky; the Milky Way has vanished; the sun has gone out… flowers have lost their color and fragrance; bread has vanished; water has vanished.”

This inner, individual world Grossman describes demands to be nurtured, just as the outside world pulls us toward it. How is it possible to effectively attend to the world beyond ourselves if we don’t start with this world within?

It’s understandable given the daily headlines why our energies and anxieties should be externalized, but we should ask ourselves—without, I believe, a sense of guilt— how can we rekindle our core selves? How can we navigate life and reunite with our unadulterated essence? And crucially, how do we accomplish this with authenticity, eschewing self-indulgence?

We have to grapple with what constitutes the self, and understand where the notion of the self originates. These questions do not have definitive answers, but the conversations they kindle hold undeniable significance.

Here are two ways to understand who we are: we are our aspirations, our longing for a future self we actively, daily create. And we are our ancestry, where we come from, our people, our culture. The former, though filled with potential narcissism, is accessible and inviting, grounded in the modern concept that each of us harbors an intrinsic calling, a purpose to unveil. The modern individual understands aspiration. It is built into the zeitgeist of our day.

Yet, along with aspirations, the more arduous path of self-understanding entails embracing the shaping power of our ancestors. Tapping into our ancestral legacy, as ancient and outdated as it sometimes might seem, serves to establish an eternal link, a tether to the past. Examining our ancestors’ travails reflects a surrender to something larger than ourselves.

In my view, true self-actualization achieves its high point when we embrace both aspiration and ancestry, when we try to discover our unique purpose in the world and when we foster a reverence for what came before, yielding to the acknowledgement that our personal sovereignty is not absolute.

As the holidays near, each of us has a choice. Our community has a choice. In the interweaving of internal introspection and external engagement, where do we begin? Self-contemplation or worldly embrace? To focus on the self, the family, our community, or to look beyond ourselves and our inner circles?

The endeavor to navigate these realms, to harmonize the callings within and without, encapsulates our annual quest for a more profound, purposeful existence. A sweet new year to all!

This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of the Vine.

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