High Holy Days: Living with purpose

have a calling. I am living my best life. I am fulfilling my life’s mission. I am living with purpose. While these pronouncements are a mainstay of popular American and Christian spirituality, they do not sound very “Jewish.” Yet, as we approach Rosh Hashanah and the celebration of the Creation of the World, now is an appropriate time to reflect upon the deep Jewish roots of the quest for a life of personal mission.

The notion of a personal calling is grounded in the creation story. In Genesis 1, humans are created “in the image of God,” and tasked with filling the earth and mastering it. Humans are assigned the role of God in the world. Just as God rests after six days of shaping the world, humans will undertake creative labor for six days and rest on the seventh. Just as God creates life and rules over God’s creation, humans will procreate, build families and govern societies. The story of creation is the story of human empowerment.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the 20th century leader of Modern Orthodoxy, focused on the theme of human empowerment in many of his writings. In particular, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that God’s creation of an imperfect world was a deliberate act of love to leave room for human action. God invites humans to assume the role of partners in finishing the tasks of creation. Humans are agents of God in the world.

Human agency is a central concept in Jewish law. A shaliach is a messenger or agent who carries out a mitzvah on behalf of another. For example, a shaliach tzibbur, or prayer leader, recites blessings on behalf of the community. A shaliach serves as the representative of another and is able to fulfill religious obligations on behalf of that person. So, too, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued, every human being serves as a shaliach for God. The fact that every human is created in God’s image implies that every human has the ability to serve as God’s agent in the world. 

Being created in God’s image teaches the lofty responsibility of serving as God’s representatives in the world. It also proclaims the uniqueness of each person and his or her mission in the world. While every other living species is formed in multitudes, the Mishnah notes that God’s creation of humanity starts with a single person, Adam. The Sageshold that this particular aspect of creation signifies the miracle of human uniqueness: “For man stamps out many coins with one seal and they are all alike, but the Holy One stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like another. Therefore, every person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me’ ” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

If each and every human being is radically unique, then each and every human being is uniquely responsible to fulfill a mission for God in the world that only he or she can accomplish. 

The process of discerning a personal mission is a process of self-discovery. This is, indeed, the challenge of Rosh Hashanah and the task of teshuvah, repentance. Despite liturgical references to Rosh Hashanah as the “Birthday of the World,” we do not spend our days in synagogue reflecting on the metaphysics of it. Instead, we spend the day focusing on personal repentance. Am I living my best life? Am I fulfilling my potential? Is my life a life of meaning and purpose?

The Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah alludes to this theme of personal responsibility and the human role in creation. Rather than reading the story of Genesis 1, the Rabbis assigned the story of the birth of Isaac as the first aliyah on Rosh Hashanah. We complete the first aliyah by reciting, “And when his son Isaac was 8 days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him” (Genesis 21:4). How curious to talk about circumcision on Rosh Hashanah! Yet, one famous rabbinic midrash about the meaning of circumcision suggests a powerful reason to focus on this particular mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah.

In the midrash, a pagan philosopher asks Rabbi Oshaya, “If God loves circumcision so much, why wasn’t Adam created already circumcised?” The rabbi replied, “Observe that everything that was created during the six days of creation needs finishing: mustard needs sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and even man needs repair [tikkun]” (Genesis Rabbah 11:6). According to this midrash, circumcision symbolizes the unfinished nature of creation. Everything in the world needs work, improvement, and repair. Even humanity is created imperfect. The act of circumcision is understood as an act of tikkun. Humans must work in the world to sweeten and improve and repair God’s unfinished creation, starting with the self.

Thus, the idea of circumcision as a symbolic ritual of repairing an imperfect world is a most appropriate Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah. “Even man needs tikkun,” the rabbis of the Midrash proclaimed. The process of teshuvah, repentance, is a process of self-repair. Rabbi Soloveitchik boldly argued that the process of repentance is an act of self-creation. Every human being, in the image of God, is a creator of worlds. We begin with the self. And through the process of self-reflection, self-judgment and self-change, we can best understand and live up to our personal role as agents of God in the world.

Living a life of purpose is a profoundly Jewish quest, grounded in the wisdom of the Jewish tradition. All human beings are fashioned in the image of God, tasked with serving as creators in the world. As walking images of God, humans are equipped to serve as God’s representatives and messengers in the world. As a radically unique individual, each human being has a distinctive role to play in the world. Finally, the world is imperfect and in need of repair. Humans are called to serve as God’s agents to repair the world, beginning with ourselves.

Lauren Berkun is director of the rabbinic and synagogue program at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America (shalomhartman.org).