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How Do We Find Our Unique Purpose in Life? (Parshas Vayechi)



There was an old man who would walk along the beach every morning before work. He was walking along the shore early one morning after a big storm had passed, and found the beach littered with starfish. As he continued further down the shore, he suddenly noticed a small boy in the distance who was picking up shells from the shore and gently throwing them into the ocean. As he got closer, he realized that this boy was actually walking amongst the thousands of starfish that had been washed up during the storm. As he came across each starfish, he would gently pick it up and throw it back into the ocean.

Amused, the man approached the child and asked, “Young boy, why are you doing this? Look at this beach. It’s littered with thousands of starfish; you can’t save all of them. What difference can you make?” The young boy looked down, momentarily crushed. But after a few seconds, he bent down again, picked up another starfish, and with all his might, hurled it into the ocean. He smiled up at the man and said, “I made a difference to that one!”

The old man paused, intrigued, and after a few moments he joined the boy in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and within a short time all the starfish were saved.

This story relates to a fundamental theme in Judaism:


Individuality vs. Uniqueness


On the one hand, we all believe that we are unique and special. On the other hand, we sometimes struggle to experience our individuality, feeling almost lost in the crowd. If you’ve ever walked the streets of a crowded city, surrounded by thousands of people walking in different directions, you may have felt almost invisible. We live on a planet with over seven billion people; planet Earth itself is a speck in the universe. If our planet is so infinitesimally small relative to the universe, and within our planet, each of us is only one of more than seven billion people, how are we supposed to feel special and unique?


Compounding this difficulty is the Torah’s emphasis on unity and community. Countless Torah themes and halachos (laws) are centered around the value of the community (tzibbur/klal) and how one must dedicate themselves to the greater good of the Jewish People. If everyone is unique and individually important, how can we understand the concept of unity and the need to work towards becoming part of something bigger than ourselves? Must we sacrifice our uniqueness and individuality for the sake of the “klal”, for the greater good of the community? Many feel as though Judaism aims to remove one’s individual identity and sense of self, instead training us to be a uniform group of people, solely committed to Hashem and Klal Yisrael. What is the deeper Jewish approach to this struggle and conflict between individuality and community, between uniqueness and being part of a unified group?


Yaakov’s Brachos


In Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu gives each of his sons a bracha (blessing) before his death. One might expect Yaakov to leave his children with words of love, positivity, and encouragement. It is therefore quite surprising to see that many of Yaakov's "brachos" appear to be exactly the opposite. His words for Shimon and Levi seem to qualify as outright rebuke. How are we to understand the meaning of this? In order to grasp the meaning behind Yaakov's brachos, as well as the relationship between individuality and community, let us study the concepts of order and structure, based on the ideas of Rav Eliyahu Dessler.


Levels of Order


 Rav Eliyahu Dessler, a prominent 20th century Jewish thinker and author of Michtav M’Eliyahu, writes about three different levels of order.[1]

  • The first is order for the sake of order, which is a practical form of order, where pieces simply come together in an orderly, organized structure.
  • The second is where the pieces within a structure are organized in such a way that it provides practical use and accessibility.
  • The third is where the pieces within the structure come together in such a way that the ensuing result transcends the sum of the parts.


Let us explore each form of order in further depth.


Order Itself


The world we live in is exquisitely structured and ordered, down to the finest details. Anyone who has studied physics, biology, or chemistry[2] has gotten a taste of the beauty and sophistication of our world's order. Every human being has an inner order, which allows our bodies to maintain homeostasis. The order of our world has many important implications and applications as well.


For example, every person's inner order is manifest and expressed as their outer order as well. If someone is riding on a train where the sound of train wheels on the tracks is making a continuous and steady noise, then if you are in a happy and excited internal state, heading towards a highly anticipated destination, you will joyfully hum along to the beat of the noise. However, if you are in a bad mood, perhaps after a long and stressful day, that very same noise will drive you crazy. In other words, your internal order affects how you perceive your external order. This goes even further; not only does it affect your external order, but many people will actively create a parallel between their internal and external order.


To illustrate, if you have a harmonious and peaceful internal state, and you come home to find a chair slightly out of place in your dining room, you'll gently put it back in its proper place. However, if you come home stressed, in an internal wreck, then not only won't you put that chair back in its proper place, you might throw the entire dining set into disarray, paralleling your internal chaotic state. We like to have our external state mirror our internal state. This is why the Ba'alei Machshava often say that you can tell a lot about a person's internal state based on how neat their room is. An organized room reflects an organized mind. Another fascinating form of external order reflecting internal order is music and art. All forms of music and art are ways for people to express their internal reality into some form of external expression. Studying the evolution of music and art reveals much about the evolution of the human internal state.[3]


Order for Practical Benefit


The second level of order is where something is ordered in such a way that it yields practical benefits. For example, a library is organized in such a way that gives one access to a tremendous amount of information; the order facilitates this accessibility. Rav Elchanan Wasserman asked, is it better to have 20,000 books or 20 books? While many are quick to say 20,000, the answer is not so simple. It actually depends; do you have an organizing index? If you have 20,000 unorganized books, they will be nearly useless. You won't be able to find a single book you are looking for. With the 20 books, you will at least have access to each of them. However, if you have a system of organization for the 20,000 books, then of course it is better to have 20,000 books.


The same is true of all forms of wisdom (chochmah), especially Torah wisdom. A truly wise person, in any field, will pursue the underlying principles and concepts, not the endless facts and applications. As the Ramchal explains in several places,[4] this is because the underlying principles contain all the facts and applications within them. An organized and sophisticated thinker will always look for the fundamental concepts and principles which contain and explain all the expressed phenomena and details. If someone asked you whether you wanted a 100-dollar bill or 10,000 pennies, which would you prefer? Obviously, the single bill, because it contains all 10,000 pennies within it, but is a great deal easier to carry around. The same is true for the principles and applications of wisdom. Every single principle contains endless applications, details, and facts. One who is wise will seek out the principle, one who isn't will be satisfied with facts and applications.


Whenever we learn a Torah topic, or a sugya (topic) in Gemara, we always start by looking for the source of this concept in the Torah. This is because the Torah source will account for all the applications within the topic. Learning Torah is about tracing things back to their source and understanding the ideas and principles of life itself, learning how to understand and align ourselves with Hashem's will. The same is true in the scientific world; physicists are looking for the "GUT", the grand unifying theory which can account for all expressed physical phenomena.[5]


The Highest Order


The third form of order and structure is fundamentally different from the first two; in this level of order, pieces come together in such a way that they create something greater than the sum of their parts. It's where the parts come together into a oneness, in a way that creates something which transcends the parts themselves.[6]


Take a radio for example; it is composed of numerous parts and components which, on their own, are practically worthless. However, when these same pieces are organized in exactly the right way, something emanates from them: a radio signal. This type of order is completely different from the first two forms of order. When a library is organized, you are still left with nothing more than the books on the shelves; and when the library is disorganized, each book still maintains its individual value. However, within this third level of order, each individual piece is worthless when all the pieces are not unified, and transcendent when the pieces are organized properly and connected.


This level of order, a unity that transcends the sum its parts, is a deep and fundamental topic. Let us delve deeper into this topic, in order to build a paradigm through which we can answer our original questions.


Beauty and Music


When you look at a beautiful sunset on the beach, where exactly is the location of beauty? Is it the sunset? The reflection on the water? The contrast of the beach against the sunset? It's none of them, and all of them. Beauty is when separate, seemingly contradictory components somehow melt into a oneness, whereby they each bring out something transcendent from within all the other components. This is the deep truth behind physical and spiritual beauty.[7]


The same principle applies to music. Anyone who plays an instrument knows that music is nothing other than a bunch of individual notes being played, one at a time. Each note by itself is not music, it's just a sound. Music is when the notes are played in the correct sequence, at the perfect tempo, at the right pace; when the musician is able to string the notes together into a melodious oneness, so that the listener no longer hears the notes, only the music. This is music.[8]


The same is true of a symphony. When you watch a symphony, there are so many different musical instruments, so many different musicians, each one playing their own unique notes. The beauty of a symphony is when the hundreds of different musicians come together in such a way that all you hear is the symphony; not the violin, not the cello, but the symphony as a whole, as one.[9]


Each Part is Fundamental


An identifying characteristic of this third form of order is that when a single piece from the structure is missing, the entire structure is affected. This is because each piece is intrinsic and fundamental. If a single screw in the radio is missing, the entire radio won't work; if a single note in the song is missing, the entire melody is affected. However, if any number of books are missing from the library, the rest of the library will be unaffected. This idea is most potently clear in its application to human genes and DNA. If a single chromosome is missing from an embryo, the child will unfortunately grow up with extremely severe defects. All of this from one missing chromosome.


This is the deep explanation behind a cryptic halacha regarding Sifrei Torah and mezuzos. If a single letter is missing from either, the Sefer Torah or mezuzah is rendered passul (invalid). Many are confused by this; how can a single letter ruin an entire Sefer Torah or mezuzah? However, based on our discussion about the third level of order, the answer becomes clear. As the Ramban explains in the introduction to his commentary on Bereishis, the entire Torah is one interconnected sefer, one elongated Shem Hashem (Name of God). In other words, it's a single organic entity. People understand that a single missing chromosome can affect an entire human being; the same is true for a Sefer Torah or mezuzah. These are organic entities, shaped by the third level of order, so even a single missing letter renders the entire text passul. The Rambam[10] echoes this same idea when explaining that if one rejects a single letter of the Torah, it is as if he rejected the entire Torah.


Our Universe


Our entire universe is comprised of smaller parts that combine into a oneness to create larger structures. Just think about your own body: Electrons, protons and neutrons come together to create elements;[11] elements come together to create organelles; organelles come together to create cells; cells come together to create organs; organs come together to create organ systems; organ systems come together to create human beings; man and wife come together to create a family; families come together to create communities; communities come together to create Klal Yisrael;[12] all of humankind come together to create humanity; all lifeforms come together to create life on earth; all matter on earth comes together to create planet earth; all our planets come together to create our galaxy; all galaxies come together to create our universe. Hashem transcends everything, and yet is within and connected to everything in our universe. Our universe is a combination of individual components, and that which emanates from, and transcends, those components.


Individuality and Community


This brings us back to our original question, wherein we find a conflict between our own individual sense of uniqueness, and the fact that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. On the one hand, we each have a deep desire to be unique, to stand out. What is sometimes referred to as the "lone ranger" syndrome, we all have the desire to be the hero, the superstar, to have the spotlight shine solely on us as we unaidedly save the day. We have a sense of unique purpose, we know that we were created for a specific reason, we know that we have talents and gifts that no one else in the world possesses. We want to be seen, heard, and understood. We wish to be important, accepted, and cared about.


On the other hand, we simultaneously understand that this world is not only about "me". We are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves. Looking at the night sky, we can't help but feel ourselves shrink into nothingness, realizing just how small we truly are. We are part of a plan, a grand cosmic story, which expands far beyond the borders of our own individual life. And strangely enough, we actually enjoy experiences where we melt into the background of something infinitely bigger than ourselves. If you’ve ever been to a stirring kumzitz (group singing), with the lights off and the musical playing, you know how spectacular it feels to be nothing, to neither be heard or seen as an individual, nor to see or hear anyone else. All you hear is the collective echoing of hundreds of voices pouring out their souls; all you see is shadows and oneness.


Which one of these desires is truly important, which one do we most strongly crave?

  • Do we prefer to be unique, to focus on our individuality and uniqueness, to stand out from the crowd?
  • Or, do we prefer to be part of the crowd, to find ourselves sewn within the fabric of the klal, to hide within that which is infinitely greater than ourselves?


The Ideal: Synthesis


The ideal is to synthesize both. Klal Yisrael is a nation shaped by the third level of order. Each of us is completely unique and intrinsic but only when we are connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael, living with a higher purpose. The ideal is to find your uniqueness within the klal, within that which is infinitely greater than yourself. To find your talent, your passion, your gift, and then wholeheartedly devote that to Klal Yisrael, to the world. We need to ask ourselves: how can my uniqueness contribute to the Jewish People and the world as a whole? Then, we must turn the focus of our life towards actualizing our unique potential, towards becoming the person we were meant to become.[13]


Yaakov’s Brachos


We can now understand the meaning behind Yaakov's brachos. If we analyze them closely, we begin to realize that Yaakov wasn't simply blessing his children, he was showing each of them their unique purpose, their unique mission. Each of the brothers had their own unique talents, and their unique roles reflected these unique talents. In the case of Shimon and Levi, Yaakov was helping them see their character traits, their strengths and weaknesses. Only by fully understanding who they were, and their unique middos, would they be able to fulfil their unique role within Klal Yisael.[14]


When all the brothers come together as one, each filling their role, they melt together into a oneness, into Klal Yisrael. As we previously discussed,[15] this is what the brothers expressed when they declared "Shema Yisrael" on Yaakov's deathbed; they were declaring their oneness as a collective whole. Not only were they great as individuals, but they united into a cohesive and harmonious collective. Just like "Hashem echad", Hashem is one, so too we, Klal Yisrael, are one.


Our Unique Role


As descendants of Yaakov and the shevatim, Yaakov’s brachos must echo resoundingly in our ears; he was speaking to each and every one of us as well. We must determinedly search for our own uniqueness, but then strive to fully devote that uniqueness to the klal, to that which transcends our limited selves. Our true greatness lies in finding our greatness within that which is greater than ourselves. We mustn't think of ourselves as meaningless starfish hidden amongst the masses, an unimportant soul lost in the crowd. Each of us is unique, each of us important; but our true importance lies within the deep understanding of how we can fit into that which is greater than ourselves. The Mishna[16] says that we must each consider as if the world was created for us. The deep explanation behind this is as follows: each of us plays a unique role in this cosmic symphony we call life. Just as every screw in the radio is fundamental, and a single missing screw renders the entire radio obsolete, so too, each of us is fundamental, and without us, the story of our world would not be complete. Each of us is a letter in the ultimate Sefer Torah, a word in the story of life. We must write our own story, with the recognition that our story is part of a bigger story, His-tory, our story.


[1] Michtav M’Eliyahu, volume 1, 92.

[2] Or any form of science for that matter.

[3] It is also important to note that people see the external world through their own developed internal lens. In other words, every person has built paradigms and "conceptual glasses" through which they have chosen to see the world. Doctors and scientists might see the world through the lens of medicine and science, sports lovers might see the world through the lens of sports. A talmid chacham will see the world through the lens of Torah and one who loves Hashem will see Hashem in everything. Each one of us gets to choose the lens through which we see and experience the world.

[4] Such as Da’as Tevunos and the introduction to Derech Hashem.

[5] They are now stuck between quantum mechanics and general relativity, and are attempting to find one theory which synthesizes both. Of course, Judaism has been teaching the true grand unifying theory since its inception, "Hashem echad", Hashem's absolute oneness.

[6] In neurobiology and physics, this would be referred to as "emergent phenomena".

[7] For more on the concept of beauty, see chapters on Parshas Mikeitz and Parshas Ki Seitzei.

[9] For more on the deeper Torah of music, see chapter on Parshas Ha’Azinu.

[10] Hilchos Teshuva 3:8

[11] And these three are comprised of smaller parts as well.

[12] This same concept applies to non-Jewish communities and nations as well.

[13] As we developed in greater length in the chapter on Parshas Lech Lecha, we must first take time to develop ourselves if we wish to have an impact on anyone else. Only once we become self-aware, work on our middos, learn Torah, and start becoming our best and truest self, can we then devote our newfound self to the klal. For a fuller development of this topic, see chapter on Parshas Acharei Mos and the discussion on chayecha kodmin.

[14] For an interesting discussion about the middos of Shimon and Levi, see chapter on Parshas Pinchas, section: “The Middah of Zealotry”

[15] See previous chapter on Parshas Vayigash, section: “Shema: Hearing Within the Darkness”.

[16] Sanhedrin 37a.


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