In the wonderful small village of Chelm there lived two neighbors, Chaim and Yankel. They were simple but content folk, and neither of them was all that bright.
On one of their regular visits to the public bath, Chaim voiced his concern to his friend. "As I will be removing my clothes, how will I be able to recognize myself upon my return?" he asked.
"Dat's a good qvestion," smiled Yankel, "But I've got a vonderful idea. Take a red string and tie de knot around your big right toe. Ven you get back den you will know that it is you - Chaim with the red string!"
"Brilliant idea!" beamed Chaim in full admiration. "You are a true genius!"
As the story would have it, the red string loosened itself from Chaim's toe. It became dislodged and subsequently slipped onto Yankel's big right toe. As Chaim returned to dress himself, he glanced down at his toe and then across the room to Yankel upon whose toe was tied a red string!
Truly mystified, Chaim turned to his friend and remarked, "I know who you are ... but who am I?"
"Who am I?" is a simple, but tremendously powerful question. It is the only question in the world that no one other than the person himself can answer. The answer is seminal to life and existence. And the solution will not simply be found by peering into one's passport or by glancing in the mirror.
Today, many of us live in a state of confusion and turmoil, searching for direction in life. We devote time and efforts to our business interests, and all too often fail to set aside significant time to devote to our spiritual business.
Imagine a merchant banker seeking to invest capital in a particular enterprise. He would never contemplate pursuing this venture without conducting detailed inquiries into its projected financial security and viability. It is elementary that the strengths and weaknesses are highlighted at the outset as well as all the market conditions within which the operation will take place. Only once an elaborate examination has been concluded, will he contemplate investing his time, money and effort. Why should self-investment be any different?
There is nothing more important than discovering who one really is. And there is no more qualified investor than oneself.
The natural starting place is by posing the question: "Who am I?"
HUMBLY KNOWING YOURSELF
Every person can see himself in one of three persuasions.
The person with a bloated ego is a show-off who thinks the world of himself. He revels in the big 'I' through his inborn talents, his acquisitions, circumstances and his projected image of grandeur. At the other extreme, is the person with a severe negative self-image. When presented with the query "Who am I?" his response indicates negative feeling about himself such that he possesses no worth whatsoever.
Neither extreme is the Jewish ideal.
The Jewish model is to be an anav, a humble person. Whatever a person achieves in his life is merely attributed to actualising his inner potential. He does not dismiss or belittle the gifts and talents that his Creator endowed to him. He sees himself as a craftsman, his talents as his tools and the object of his attention is the making of himself.
Asking "Who am I?" provides the clarity and impetus to become who you really are.
This is personified in the greatest Jewish leader Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, who, in spite of his position, is described as the "most humble person on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3). He may have been the one who ascended to heaven to bring the Torah down to the Jewish people, the one who spoke "face-to-face" with God. Nevertheless he remained absolutely faithful to the task expected of him. And he delivered the goods.
The humble person recognizes his innate worth and abilities, and yet modestly goes about his business without fanfare. He deflates his ego and does not boast about his achievements for he is merely fulfilling his duty harnessing all of his inner talents to do exactly what God wants him to do.
For the Jew to charter his or her pathway through life, the starting point is to define who and what one is. A good way to start is to define a list of goals that are on the one hand realistic, and on the other hand challenge a person to stretch himself.
Each individual is a world unto himself. He is correct to proclaim, "The whole world was created for me" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). It would be a tragedy to miss out on actualizing the unique beauty and splendor of one's own world -- his unique attributes and strengths. No one else is suited to live your life. As our Sages teach us, "If I am not I, who am I? If I am not for myself, what am I?" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14). Asking "Who am I?" provides the clarity and impetus to become who you really are.
Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam once lamented to the towering ethical giant, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, "If only I had the mind of the author of the Responsa Sha'agas Aryeh, the dedicated heart of the author of 'Foundation and Source of Divine Service,' and the ethical character traits of you, my master!"
Rabbi Salanter was not impressed.
"Naftali!" Rabbi Yisrael sharply retorted his disciple. "No! No! You are to serve God with your own mind, with your own heart, and with your own exemplary character traits."
One's role and mission in life is to become you rather than someone else.
In the words of a Toshiba advertisement: "The most precious company in the world is your own."
Only through introspection can an individual become his true self, and arrive at a complete answer to the burning question: "Who am I?"