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Rediscovering Torah Individuality

Because no two people are alike, no two people develop the same connection with Hashem


One metaphor for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is that of an annual review of our performance with respect to our particular mission statement. That review, however, requires us to have more than an inkling of our particular mission. As the late mashgiach Rav Shlomo Wolbe used to say, “Half the work of Elul is discovering the nature of the ‘ani’ in ‘Ani l’dodi v’dodi li — I am to my Beloved and my Beloved to me.’ ”

I have always found one of the most empowering Torah ideas to be that each of us comes into the world with a mission for which we are specifically equipped and that no one else can perform as well. But I confess that I was stunned by the “breathtaking array of writings by Jewish sages and startling insights into their teachings [on the topic] of self-knowledge as the key to reaching each individuals’ potential” (to quote Rav Aharon Feldman) amassed by Rabbi Yosef Lynn and Rabbi Jack Cohen in their new work Nurture Their Nature (Mosaica).

The Torah insists upon the absolute uniqueness of every Jew. Upon seeing a multitude of 600,000 Jews, as at Har Sinai, we recite the blessing, “Baruch Chacham harazim — Blessed is G-d, the Wise [Knower] of secrets” (Berachos 58a). That multitude is not just an aggregate of largely interchangeable human beings. Rather, each individual contains a “secret” implanted by our Creator.

Unraveling that secret begins with self-knowledge. When Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai told his five talmidim to go out and see what is the good path to which a person should cleave (Pirkei Avos 2:13), he was checking, according to the Maharal, to make sure that the attainments that he saw in each emerged from their own understanding of their core middah. And that would be revealed by the middah that they praised.

Knowing oneself and one’s unique soul, according to Ibn Ezra, is a prerequisite for knowing Hashem. Because no two people are alike, no two people will develop the same connection with Hashem. Thus Shemoneh Esreh begins with reference to Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, and Elokei Yaakov.

Our unique nature will determine our particular mission in life. Whatever the mission Hashem has assigned us — whether engaging in business, or working as a humble laborer, or becoming one from whose mouth learning never departs — we are all equally capable of reaching the level of chassid, i.e., one continually striving to bring pleasure to Hashem, points out the Ramchal.

BEYOND ESTABLISHING the fact of our individuality, Rabbis Lynn and Cohen flesh out the implications that flow from it. The first is the need to emphasize the positive, both in terms of identifying our strengths and stressing our mission.

Writes the Chovos Halevavos, in Shaar HaAvodah, “First, a person must know his own worth and that of his ancestors, their greatness, their importance, and how beloved they are in the eyes of the Creator.” That means knowing the gifts with which Hashem has invested us and how many hopes He has for us.

Rav Yisrael Salanter used to say that a person must know his failings and what needs correction. But it is a far greater tragedy if he does not know his strengths, for they will usually be the means by which he fulfills his Divine mission.

With awareness that one has been imbued with particular strengths, there grows a sense of responsibility. As a granddaughter wrote me recently on the occasion of my 70th birthday, “The day you were born is the day that Hashem decided the world could no longer reach its goal without you.”

When the time for building the Mishkan and its vessels came, Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, “See, I have called by name Betzalel....” The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 40:2) explains the apparently superfluous “See”: Hashem showed Moshe Rabbeinu the Book of Humanity, containing all the generations from Adam HaRishon to the Revival of the Dead, and the role of each one in the process. Each one of us has his place in that historical tableau, a corner of the world for which he is responsible.

What emerges from an emphasis on strengths and one’s particular mission is a vision of a world of opportunity, the authors write, instead of one of constriction and little besides rigorous self-critique.

Appreciating our individuality and unique mission is also a protection against destructive jealousy. If each of us has a unique mission for which he has been blessed with particular tools, there is no basis for jealousy of another, who was created for a completely different purpose.

As the Maharal points out, all the qualities of a person mentioned in Pirkei Avos — wisdom, strength, and wealth — are defined in terms that apply only to a person himself and which cannot be compared to anyone else. At most, we might look at another and determine that he is fulfilling his mission better than we are fulfilling ours. But that should serve as a spur to action.

The more we appreciate our own individuality, the more we appreciate that of others. A great violinist knows that she cannot perform Beethoven’s Third Symphony alone; it takes an orchestra. And just as she recognizes all that she has invested in the cultivation of her talent, so does she come to recognize the efforts of all her fellow orchestra members.

The one time we experienced complete unity, as one person with one heart, was upon arriving at Har Sinai. The very unprepossessing nature of the mountain led to the recognition that natural attributes are not the sole determinant of the importance of the mission. For that recognition alone, we proclaim in Dayeinu, it would have been enough had HaKadosh Baruch Hu just brought us to the mountain: The sight of the lowly mountain itself made true unity possible.

As the title implies, Nurture Their Nature is aimed primarily at parents and educators. The Vilna Gaon famously writes in his explication of the verse, “Educate the youth according to his way,” that the basic nature of a person is more or less unalterable. And that is why the education provided must be in accord with our child’s or student’s basic nature. Eisav, writes Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, needed a very different chinuch than Yaakov Avinu.

No educational institution can create an individualized curriculum for each student. As a consequence, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky observed, a yeshivah is of necessity a Sedom bed, cutting or stretching the talmidim to fit the institution. Thus parents cannot just rely on whatever institution they feel is best suited for their child; they too much be actively involved in his education, with the awareness that each child has a different way of learning and will be attracted to different aspects of Torah. For example, Rav Yaakov would advise litvishe parents whose children were attracted to chassidus not to oppose them. Each soul knows what it needs, he would say.


Nurture Their Nature is dedicated to my brother Rabbi Matisiyahu Rosenblum by the talmidim of Machon Yaakov, where he was a colleague of  Rabbi Lynn’s for 15 years and a rebbi of Rabbi Cohen’s.

Curious about the nature of his contribution, I called Rav Beryl Gershenfeld, upon whose shiurim the work is based, and asked him. Rav Beryl told me that he had been reluctant to allow the authors to publish the work: He felt a work about individuality needed to be transmitted directly from rav to talmid. But when Matisiyahu was first diagnosed with cancer, he called Reb Beryl, and told him, with his characteristic wit, “I don’t want to pressure you unduly, but I feel that the merit of my work on this sefer is my biggest zechus to live.”

As was usually the case, Matisiyahu was right about what an important work this is (though, sadly, not about the zechusim he needed). But don’t take my work for it. Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski wrote his final haskamah, just months before his passing, for the book. He described Nurture Their Nature as a “vital sefer, [one that] should be studied rather than just read.”


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 874. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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