By Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen
Many years ago, I spent a summer in Perth, Australia. The goal of the trip was to bring Jewish teenagers and adults of Perth closer to their heritage. It was a beautiful summer and a unique exposure to a place far from New York.
It was a mild winter in Perth at the time and I played multiple rounds of golf with kangaroos by my side. The Indian Ocean was the nearest waterway, the time zone was 14 hours ahead of New York and it felt worlds away from home. Sadly, I discovered that many of these Jews were as distant from their Judaism as I was from home. Strikingly, some of them didn’t even know the basics. Even the names of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs were foreign to them.
We decided to do an exercise involving their Jewish names. Each participant was asked to explore his or her Jewish name. They were asked to reveal who they were named after as well as the unique qualities of that person. Finally, they were asked to explore the impact and commonalities between themselves and the person they were named for. The exercise was transformative. Each began to understand the concept of legacy and the reality of standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. We were able to communicate the process of ‘mesorah’ or transmission in Judaism and concurrently accent the unique qualities and personality of each and every Jew. They began to understand their names were truly their essence.
A 90-year-old Holocaust survivor named R’ Sinai Adler, shlita, recently shared the following insight. The Nazis famously tattooed numbers onto the arms of their victims. Their goal was to eradicate the ‘names’ of the individual members of our people. The intent was to erase our individuality and humanity. Everyone was just a number, making it easier conceptually and psychologically to liquidate us. (Admittedly, it is hard to posit that it might have been remotely difficult for them.) He concluded by pointing out the irony that instead they robbed themselves of their own humanity.
In my formative years studying in Israel, I recall a rosh yeshiva being asked the following question. Is it preferable to be an average Torah scholar and spend all one’s time studying Torah and teaching it? Or is it better to become a world-class surgeon? The rosh yeshiva, to the surprise of many present, encouraged the students gathered to become the very best that they can be, no matter the realm of activity.
As a modern contemporary thought leader once said, “We weren’t placed into this world to be just average; rather to shine and reveal the inner light of G-d within each of us.”
We are at our greatest capacity to impact the world when we do what most resonates with our identity and destiny. It is a shame to conform to someone else’s image of how we should live our lives. Each of us has a unique story that only we can tell. For some, that may very well be years of medical training.
Recently, a surprising thing happened to me. A member of my shul was celebrating the occasion of a bris in our beis midrash in North Woodmere. R’ Mordechai Kamenetzky, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of South Shore was in attendance. We spoke for a while at the seudah and struck up a fast friendship. We discussed the past and future of the shul and my hopes of embarking on a renovation project to reflect the recent growth in our minyan. At the end of the conversation I retreated to my office and gave him a copy of the book that I authored a few years ago.
The caveat to the story is I give my book to many people. Most of them never mention it to me ever again, which I assume means they accept it politely and then put it down on the shelf. Maybe they re-gift it occasionally.
About a week later an envelope arrived at my home. The opening line of the letter from R’ Kamenetzky was, “You owe me a few hours of Shabbos rest!”
He goes on to explain how much he enjoyed reading the book and what an impact it had upon him and his wife. He was engrossed in the book from after lunch on Shabbos afternoon until Minchah, foregoing valuable rest.
All of this was flattering enough. The kicker was he enclosed a modest check to kick off our building fund. It happened to be that I was having a rough day. That afternoon, I had lost a possible six-figure donation to my organization due to the recent stock market regression. I came home that evening in a sour mood. The surprise letter completely lifted my spirits and reminded me that we can impact the world in so many surprising and different ways. The surprise letter of chizuk brought me a measure of comfort over the loss of the funds.
Most significantly, it reinforced for me my own uniqueness and that someone who barely knew me cared to let me know that he ‘noticed me,’ enough to actually take out his checkbook and squander a Shabbos nap. I was a little sorry it wasn’t a six-figure check but it was incredibly meaningful nonetheless.
In the business world of 2019, the key to success is differentiation. Being different is the key to being noticed. There is so much noise and competition that one must truly stand out to rise above the herd. A person must truly assess where their uniqueness lies and how they can add value nobody else can. If one is unable to differentiate, they likely won’t be in business for long.
Our spiritual business is rather similar. Everyone has something to offer to the world. Sometimes, what we can best offer is noticing the effort and toil of another. Sending a letter with a check enclosed is differentiation at its best and a loving way to support a new friend. Our uniqueness can certainly be expressed in how we approach and deal with others.
We recently began reading the book of Sh’mos, the book of names. As the Jewish people embark on our destiny as the chosen nation, the Torah highlights our evolution and development in a book highlighting names. The Jewish name reminds us that we have a calling and destiny, communally and individually.
The Nazis monumentally failed in their overarching goal. The Jewish people are flourishing, growing, and continuing to differentiate themselves in society at large. The Greeks before them, tried to make us like every other nation. They yearned to remove our points of differentiation.
Antisemitism reared its ugly tentacles again and again in 2018 hoping to scare us off and remove our names and memories from the world.
Ultimately, no matter the challenge, we have conviction that Jewish destiny is rooted in our special relationship with Hashem, sanctifying His name and demonstrating fidelity to our own names, through elevating creation with our distinctive personalities and contributions.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the chief relationship officer at YACHAD, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. He is also the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, N.Y., and the author of “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance, and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016). Learn more at RabbiDovidMCohen.com.