September 20, 2001
A World for Me
Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)
The Shabbat of teshuva (repentance) has a special quality among the other 10 days of Teshuva. The Shabbat of Teshuva is obviously a more focused day than, say, the Tuesday of Teshuva, yet it's not nearly as high-pressure as Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur are. As such, there's a unique creativity of teshuva -- thinking that is traditionally associated with this Shabbat.
It's common to assume that these 10 days of repentance are days that call for humility. We know that a broken heart is well suited to be a penitent heart, and that genuine introspection demands humility of the spirit. During the vidui (confession) of Yom Kippur, we repeatedly beat our chests for the sins of arrogance and haughtiness.
While these observations are unquestionably true, there are a number of classic rabbinic passages -- one of which is specifically addressing the process of teshuva -- which actually demand of us a significant degree of personal hubris. One is the passage in Mishna Sanhedrin: "God created [many individuals of all the other species, but He created] but one, sole, human being." For this reason, each and every human individual is required to say, "for my sake was the entire world created."
What is the Rabbis' reasoning process here? They presume that in the same way that God went through the trouble to produce the entire universe for the sake of Adam (who was one, unspectacular individual), He would similarly have done so for you or me, were one of us to have been the randomly chosen soul to occupy the first human form. Thus, each of us must say, "for me the world was created." Strikingly, this Mishna is not merely giving us license to utter this proud statement of ultimate self-worth; it is actually requiring us to do so.
A second such sentiment is expressed in Tractate Kiddushin, where, in the name of teshuva, we are implored to put ourselves into a very self-important state of mind. "Every person must look at the entire world as possessing precisely equal quantities of merit and transgression. Thus, if she were to perform one more mitzvah, she would tip the world's scale toward merit, and save it from condemnation and destruction." This is a state of mind the Talmud urges us to be in at all times, and one that Rambam especially exhorts the one who is engaged in teshuva to adopt. The world stands or falls around you.
Both of these passages recognize that the necessary humility before God, is not to be confused with an underestimation of our stature and power as human beings.
The first passage insists that each of us is capable of deeds that render the entire project of creation worthwhile. The Creator of the universe believes in us that much. And the second testifies to the unlimited impact that our decisions and actions can have. You never know who else you are inspiring when you do a mitzvah. And you thus never know, but could perhaps imagine, the endless rippling outward of your deed. Of course, haughtiness of the spirit can be crippling to our teshuva. But so can misplaced humility about our potential.
The greatest irony of the frenetic lives we lead today, is that we are far too busy running around "fulfilling our potential,"to have any time to seriously reflect on what our potential actually is. This is especially frustrating because with each day that passes, and with the layer of experience that each day adds, our potential to be a source of blessing only increases. We don't even know, most of the time, what capacities we have acquired, and how these can be put to use. This is why we have these days of getting a handle on ourselves. For sure, getting a handle on where we've fallen short. But also getting a handle on what we really could do if we were to deeply take in the idea that the world was worth creating for the sake of our deeds alone.
Don't worry. Let it go to your head. You can be trusted.