After six months of working for the company, it’s time for your evaluation. You walk into the boardroom, where three designer-suit-clad personnel managers are sitting behind a mahogany desk. The one on the left scans your file, looks up at you accusingly, and says, “I see here that you did not report for work at 9 am one time during this entire period.”
The woman in the middle shakes her head and remarks, “This is a Fortune 500 Company. Instead of a jacket and tie, you report for work wearing jeans.”
The man on the right stares at the papers in his hand and says grimly, “Our surveillance cameras show that you spend less than 10% of your working hours at your desk. The rest of the time you’re walking around the building.”
The first evaluator shoots the question: “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“Yes,” you reply with confidence, “I was hired as the night watchman.”
This season is a time of evaluation. But to accurately assess your performance this year, you have to know your job description. Judaism asserts that every soul comes into this world charged with a positive purpose.
According to the great 16th century Kabbalistic master known as the Arizal, no one has ever or will ever come into this world with the exact same mission as yours. The light you are meant to shine into the world is yours alone, as individual as your fingerprint, as personal as your voiceprint.
Your mission can be interpersonal, such as counseling couples with troubled marriages, or scholarly, such as researching ancient Chinese culture, or an expression of your talent, such as painting landscapes or playing the violin. It can be concrete, such as establishing a home for Alzheimer’s patients, or abstract, such as manifesting in the world the Divine attribute of truth or patience. It can be on a large scale, such as inaugurating the recycling system in your city, or on a small scale, such as caring for your handicapped child with joy. You may have two, or at most, three different missions, which can be consecutive (after finishing one job you start another) or simultaneous. Yet, even if there are 500 marriage counselors in your city, your particular approach and way of helping people is . Not one of us can be replaced – ever.
Identifying Your Mission
Imagine you are an undercover agent sent into Iran. You’ve had years of training, have two vital contacts in Tehran, and are equipped with the latest hi-tech spy gadgetry. Only one thing is lacking: You have no idea what your mission is.
Many of us go through life like that: We follow the route laid out by society: going to college, finding a job, getting married, raising a family, but with no clear sense of the mission entrusted to us. We are pulled in many different directions, feeling compromised in what we do and guilty for what we don’t do. Identifying our mission is, according to Rabbi Aryeh Nivin, the first step in leading a life of vibrancy and joy. “When you intersect with your life’s purpose,” he explains, “you feel excitement.”
Knowing your personal mission is essential preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, God apportions to each of us life, health, livelihood, and everything else. What is your plan for how you propose to use the life God gives you? The CEO is not going to dole out a million-dollar budget to an employee who doesn’t have a carefully worked out proposal.
We are used to praying for life, health, and livelihood as ends in themselves. In the Divine accounting, however, life, health, and livelihood are simply the tools – the hi-tech spy gadgetry – that will enable you to accomplish your mission.
Rabbi Nivin offers two methods for discovering your mission:
- Ask yourself (and write down): What were the five or ten most fulfilling moments in my life?
- Ask yourself: If I inherited a billion dollars and had six hours a day of discretionary time, what would I do with the time and money?
When answering the first question, eliminate the universal transcendent moments, such as witnessing the beauty of nature or listening to music. Your mission, of course, may have to do with nature or music, but on a much more individual level than the high all people feel when they see the Grand Canyon. Although your mission may require hard work or genuine sacrifice, when you are engaged in your life’s mission you experience, as Rabbi Nivin puts it, “This feels so good that I could do it all day long.”
When I asked myself these questions, the common theme that emerged for me was that my mission is: “To inspire people, through writing and speaking, to move forward in their spiritual/personal development and form a relationship with God.” That’s what excites and energizes me. That’s why, to my friends’ amazement, when I am lecture touring, I can speak in five different cities in five days, waking up at dawn every day to make an early flight and giving a three-hour workshop twice a day, and, at 63 years old, never feel tired. Knowing my mission is like installing an energy pack in my life.
Barbara Silverstein is a wife, mother, and hospice nurse. When talking to me recently about her “life’s mission,” she shrugged. Although her personal and professional lives are fraught with difficulties, she soldiers on with dedication and integrity. I asked her what she would do if she had loads of money and six hours a day of discretionary time. Barbara thought for a few minutes, then replied with passion: “I would set up a Jewish outreach center for the elderly. In my work with the terminally ill, I’m always facing men or women who are about to lose their spouse and they say to me, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about the funeral. I don’t have a rabbi.’ They want a spiritual connection with their Jewish roots, but they’re clueless about how to do it.” The more that Barbara talked, the more fervent she became.
“So that’s your mission,” I told her, “to establish a Jewish outreach center for the elderly. That’s real pioneering work. No one else has done it.”
“Are you kidding?” Barbara replied. “Between my family and my work, I don’t have time for anything else.”
Remembering Rabbi Nivin’s advice, I suggested: “Take a half hour twice a week, and sit down with a pen and paper, and just start brainstorming. Write down whatever comes to your mind, what the first steps would be, and what you want it to look like in the end. And ask the Almighty for help in making it happen. He can give you whatever He deems you should have. And then see if the opportunity to take the next step emerges.”
Two weeks later, Barbara phoned me, brimming with excitement. “This has really gotten my imagination going,” she effused. “Everything I’ve learned throughout my life is coming in handy with this plan. I don’t know if it’ll ever amount to anything, but just thinking about it is like an electrical charge in my whole day. My husband and kids ask me why I’m smiling so much.”
The Creator has outfitted you with a set of aptitudes, talents, and interests perfectly suited to what you are charged with accomplishing. By following your inclinations and abilities, you may already have found your mission. Sometimes your mission is deposited in your lap, such as the birth of a special needs child. The National Tay-Sachs Association, for example, was founded by the parents of children suffering from Tay-Sachs; the parents’ daunting challenge metamorphosed into their life’s mission.
If your mission is not yet clear to you, take a half hour and reflect on, “What do I really want to do with my life?” Perhaps you work full time developing software for Microsoft, but you’ve always felt a tug to write a book about internet addiction. Perhaps your greatest pleasure is tending your vegetable garden in suburban Detroit, but you’ve always dreamed of living on an agricultural settlement in Israel. Such inner urges may be whisperings from God, the secret message from Headquarters disclosing your true mission.
Guilt, Respect, Validation
Clarity about your mission dissipates guilt for all the worthy endeavors you’re NOT engaged in. Once you realize that you’re in this world to develop a new healing modality for autism, you won’t feel guilty that you’re not volunteering for the local soup kitchen or marching on the U.N. to protest anti-Israel discrimination.
However, fulfilling your individual life’s mission does not exempt you from your global missions, such as supporting your family or raising your children. Starting an outreach center for the elderly may have to wait until your children are grown. Writing that book on internet addiction may have to be tucked into your few spare hours after your full-time job. Don’t worry. The God who assigned you your mission will make sure you have everything you need – including time now or later – to fulfill it.
The concept of each person having an individual life’s mission is a key to respecting other people. Otherwise, you may feel that what’s important to you should be important to everyone. You’re an environmental activist? You may blame your sister for being oblivious to the environment without appreciating that her mission is to fight Holocaust denial. You belong to a group that feeds the homeless? You may find it reprehensible that that other group is apparently heedless to the homeless and spends all their time in pro-Israel activism on campus. Being able to say, “This is my mission and that is theirs,” is the gateway to true tolerance and respect.
Knowing your individual mission validates your life and releases you from the pernicious habit of comparing yourself to others. Jonah Salk’s mark on the world may seem as deep as a crater while your taking care of your handicapped brother may seem like a fingernail impression, but from a spiritual perspective the light you are shining into the world is and is exactly the light you came here to radiate.
So when the shofar sounds this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, stand for your annual evaluation and be prepared to declare, “This is my job, and I’m working on it.”