GOOD MORNING! Last week the CDC finally approved removing face masks indoors for those who are fully vaccinated. Since then, I visited one of our school campuses and was warmly greeted by an employee I didn’t recognize. I turned to another member of my staff and asked him who it was, he replied; “I really have no idea, I haven’t seen people’s faces in over a year.”

It was a startling statement. We are basically programmed to assign individuality to a person based on his or her face, and thereby create an imprint for recognition. However, this year’s requirement of wearing face masks – which our schools strictly adhered to – almost totally eliminated that familiarity with a person’s individuality.

I was reminded of the well-known Talmudic aphorism regarding individuality: “Just as their faces are different so are their outlooks” (Tosefta Brachot Chapter 6). Wearing face masks all but eliminated our sense of individuality – even our cell phones don’t recognize us while wearing a face mask!

Undoubtedly, the one image that will always be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is that of crowds of people wearing face masks. For decades or even generations to come, those photos will be a reminder of the year our collective individuality was stripped away.

In prior editions of the Shabbat Shalom Fax of Life I had suggested that perhaps the lasting lesson from these very difficult 15 months is that we need to refocus our lives; making it less about ourselves and our selfish desires and more about what we can do for others.

This week I would like to focus on what self-definition is and how to properly define who you are. At some point, almost everyone grapples with what is perhaps the most personally meaningful existential question: “Who am I?”

A few weeks ago, I discussed what is probably one of the more disturbing elements of modern society: Allowing yourself to be defined by how others perceive you. In other words, because you don’t really know “who you are” you begin to think of yourself the way others see others you.

Of course this leads to a host of unhealthy psychological issues because you end up needing almost endless validation and your self-worth is totally based on others’ perceptions of who you are. To fill this void you create a make believe life (hello Facebook, Instagram, etc.), buy designer clothes, the latest technology, expensive cars, and outlandishly lavish homes. This is all done to impress others so that through their eyes you can begin to feel better about yourself.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the whole issue of gender confusion. While there may very well be a psychological disorder called Gender Dysphoria, the accompanying need that one’s disorder be validated by the rest of society is patently unhealthy.

This concept of manipulating the English language to alter the definition of certain pronouns to accommodate a person suffering from Gender Dysphoria is, quite frankly, pretty sad. The creation of new ways of applying pronouns in these situations is basically stating that they need others to validate who they believe they are, and if they are not recognized in that way then they are being maligned and are somehow less. They think so little of themselves that they require everyone else’s tacit recognition to feel better about themselves.

At the end of the day, putting our mental wellbeing in the hands of others is always a bad idea. In general, people paint the world in broad brush strokes and their perception of us is almost always sure to be wrong.

As regular readers of the Shabbat Shalom know, this past year our school purchased a school campus in a small town in Pennsylvania named New Bloomfield. While we were trying to determine whether or not this was the right purchase for our school, we spent some time meeting the board of directors of the school that had closed and some of the local townsfolk. The board of the school had arranged a “meet and greet” so that we could get to know one another.

I will never forget that the first person I met that morning introduced himself and said to me the following; “You know I am the first Jew of New Bloomfield.” I looked at him in surprise, “Wha-what do you mean?” – half expecting him to tell me some crazy tale of how his Jewish parents ended up in this remote rural town. He answered, “I am really tight with a nickel.”

I was far more amused than insulted. It told me a lot more about him than about Jews. After all, I know that, in general, Jews aren’t really cheap, they are just careful that they are getting value for their money. So obviously I wasn’t going to allow his statement to define me. Moreover, he meant it as a compliment! He was just very proud of the fact that he didn’t spend money frivolously. (He also turned out to be a very kind hearted person – that day he spent a few hours driving me around and showing me the entire area.)

Returning to our original question, how is one supposed to address the ultimate question of self-definition – who am I?

In this week’s Torah reading we find an instructive life lesson that sheds some light on this and begins to give us an approach to understanding who we are.

The Torah portion related the laws regarding an individual known as a nazir – a person who decides to take on certain restrictions for a period of 30 days to prohibit himself from certain physical pleasure (no wine) and personal grooming (no shaving or haircuts) among other restrictions.

Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them: When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a nazirite, to separate themselves for the Lord (Numbers 6:2).

This is the law of the nazir: On the day that his days of nazirite are completed, he shall bring himself to the entrance of Tent of Meeting (Numbers 6:13).

Both of these verses contain a very strange construct. Why does the Torah say in the first verse “When a man and woman separate themselves to make a vow”? One would have expected the Torah to simply say; “when either a man or woman vow a vow of a nazirite.” In the second verse instead of saying “he shall bring himself” it could have simply said, “he will come.” The Torah doesn’t take poetic license and it never adds unnecessary words. What is the Torah trying to teach us here?

With these words the Torah provides us with a valuable insight into understanding who we are (as well as how an addiction can be overcome). As we have mentioned, the vow of nezirus requires the individual to become distanced from physicality. By nature, every human being tends to identify his physical drives with himself. Often, a person will think, “I want to do this,” and will conclude that since he feels that desire he has no way to control himself.

Frequently, we hear people rationalizing that they act or talk in a certain way simply because “that’s the way I am.” This essentially means that they believe they have no control over themselves, over their own words and actions, and it is indeed very difficult to change a behavior that one views in this fashion. After all, how can a person be expected to change his inherent nature?

The answer is that it is crucial for a person to separate the feelings and desires he experiences from his sense of self. A person must recognize that these actions represent only what he has chosen, not who he is. There is a part of every person’s psyche that remains separate from his choices, and the free will with which we are all endowed makes it possible for us to recognize that our desires are not one and the same with who we are.

Thus, the experience of becoming a nazir begins with “separating themselves” emotionally and is only successful if it concludes by “bringing himself” to the Beis Hamikdash – this is the recognition that he is separate from the base desires within himself. The litmus test to determine whether a person has truly freed himself from addictive behavior is the determination of whether he is capable of distinguishing between what he wants and who he is.

This is also a key concept in understanding how true repentance is accomplished. The process of repentance requires that a person create a genuine change, actually turning oneself into a different person with different behavior. In order to do that, however, the person must recognize that his desires are not part of his identity and that he has the free will to change them.

Thus the answer to “Who am I?” begins with answering “Who do I want to be?” Your actions are what define you, not what others think of you. Your actions make you into a loyal spouse, a caring parent, a responsible employee, a compassionate friend, and a committed Jew. Even when we falter we can always find a way back if we understand that our mistakes don’t define us – we can correct them and define ourselves.

Torah Portion of the Week

Naso, Numbers 4:21 - 7:89

This week's portion includes further job instructions to the Levites and Moses is instructed to purify the camp in preparation for the dedication of the Mishkan, the Portable Sanctuary.

Then four laws relating to the Cohanim are given: 1) Restitution for stolen property where the owner is deceased and has no next of kin – goes to the Cohanim. 2) If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful, he brings her to the Cohanim for the Sotah clarification ceremony. 3) If a person chooses to withdraw from the material world and consecrate himself exclusively to the service of the Almighty by becoming a nazir (vowing not to drink wine or eat grape products, come in contact with dead bodies, or cut his hair), he must come to the Cohen at the completion of the vow. 4) The Cohanim were instructed to bless the people with this Priestly Blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard over you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up His Countenance upon you and give you peace.”

The Mishkan is erected and dedicated on the first of Nissan in the second year after the Exodus. The leaders of each tribe jointly give wagons and oxen to transport the Mishkan. During each of the twelve days of dedication, successively each tribal prince gives gifts of gold and silver vessels, sacrificial animals, and meal offerings. Every prince gives exactly the same gifts as every other prince.

Candle Lighting Times

I am not needy; I am wanty!


Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Wulf Hirschfield

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig