Why Am I Here?
Rabbi Daniel Pressman
Welcome to the Ten Days of Repentance. Repentance is easy to say and hard to do. Like many demanding tasks, the first challenge is how to begin. I’d like to suggest: with questions — questions about ourselves—our deeds, our relationships and our character. And the first question is: Why am I here? Without assessing our goals, our purpose and our values, we will have no context for evaluating our lives.
This question has many levels:
Why am I here in synagogue right now?
Why am I here in the world?
Why am I here at this point in my life?
Let’s start with “Why am I here in shul?” There are many possible answers:
- Out of a vague sense of obligation.
- Out of a specific sense of obligation.
- Out of guilt.
- Because my spouse made me.
- Because my parents would have expected it.
- Because I always go.
- Because it feels good to see everyone.
- Because it’s a mitzvah.
- Because I need to touch base.
- Because I’m here every week.
- Because I love the melodies.
- Because there’s something holy about these days.
- Because this is the closest synagogue to my house.
- Because once a year I need to evaluate my life.
- Because I need to set an example for my children.
- Because…well, you fill in the blank for yourself.
Now that you are here, let’s go deeper: why am I here in the world? What is my life’s purpose? Again, there are many possible answers. Here are two major, competing responses:
I am here because of a very long chain of random events that resulted in life developing out of the primordial ooze and eventually, through the blind forces of evolution, to conscious beings, and then to me. So there is no reason for my existence; It just happened. It’s up to me to find a purpose to my life, or to live with meaninglessness.
Or, I am here because God created the world with love and intention, and formed human beings in the divine image. The God of the bible has agency, will, compassion and kindness. We are created in that likeness. As Biblical scholar David Clines, writes, “Man is created not in God’s image, since God has no image,…but as God’s image, or rather to be God’s image…That man is God’s image means that he is the visible corporeal representative of the invisible, bodiless God; he is representative rather than representation.”
Our purpose is to move from the general idea of God’s image to specific ways to represent God in the world. In Lily Tomlin’s immortal words, “When I was growing up I always wanted to be someone. Now I realize I should have been more specific.”
So specifically, “why” do I exist? What is my life’s depth meaning? Judaism has many ideas about this existential question.
The rabbis teach us that each individual is significant. “Every person is obligated to say: ‘For my sake was the world created’” (Sanhedrin 37a).
No two people are alike. We are not indistinguishable members of a hive. Rather, we each have unique potential.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “There is a task that only I, and I alone, can carry out, a task so great that its fulfillment may epitomize the meaning of all humanity.” (What is Man, p. 36)
Perhaps Heschel based this insight on Rabbi Zushya of Anapol, who taught that just as no two people are alike physically, so they are different mentally.
If the beauty of the soul in all humans was identical, then why would God need to create so many millions of people, where each one is no different from the next? However, the secret is this: Each person is sent down to this world in order to fulfill a specific Divine task, to carry out on earth a lofty, heavenly purpose….Therefore, God endows each person with unique talents and attributes necessary for him to fulfill his task. These talents cry out within each person, demanding to be expressed and to fulfill the mission for which they were sent to this world.
What an inspiring and yet humbling idea. “The world was created for my sake” could lead to narcissistic self-regard. Instead it is a summons to discover our special talents and unique mission and then go out into the world to fulfill it.
So the question “Why am I here” becomes a reflection on “What are my special gifts? How am I using them? What will be my unique contribution to making the world a better place?” It could be something big like finding a cure for a disease. It could something that seems small, like treating everyone with kindness and a smile.
There is another truth hiding within these questions: discovering and pursuing our meaning and purpose are the secret of happiness.
That goes against so much in contemporary American culture, which confuses pleasure with happiness. Victor Frankl, the psychologist who survived the Holocaust and wrote, Man’s Search for Meaning, once said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” And, “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Why am I here? Judaism answers, because God wants you to be. Your existence has meaning. That’s why it’s worth taking time to reflect what that meaning might be and how you are fulfilling it.
The High Holy Days prompt us to ask that question and one that is more specific: As I assess my deeds and character, why am I here at this moment in my life? What decisions, errors, omissions, accidents and plans, chance encounters and deliberate choices led me to my present situation? With what am I satisfied? What do I regret? What would I change? What must I change? Am I who I want to be? These are the questions the High Holy Days would have us ask. These Ten Days give us the opportunity to step back from the distractions and diversions of our daily lives and contemplate questions of purpose and meaning. We call it ḥeshbon ha-nefesh—accounting of the soul, self-evaluation.
So why am I here? Only you can answer that for yourself, why you are here at CBD for services, or why you are here on earth, or why you are at this juncture of your life. But first you have to be willing to ask the question.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” During these High Holy Days, may our time together, our time of private soul-searching, and the themes and melodies of worship guide us to deeper questions about our lives and their meaning, and may we find insights that will inspire us to move, in the liturgy’s words, higher and higher.