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Identity-less or Identity-ful?

Friday, 15 May, 2015 - 6:00 am

I remember vividly a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was full of interesting adventures, challenges and inspiration.

But the most difficult part was leaving the country. I recall arriving at the airport and being asked – before entering the airport – for my passport. It was quickly grabbed from my hands and someone ran off with it, while a horde of people – some official-looking, some quasi-official-looking and some of downright suspect appearance – converged upon me and grabbed my bags.  Within moments I was without a passport, without my belongings and in a country where I knew very little and did not speak the language very well. I was kind of terrified.

Truth be told it wasn’t as much my safety or catching the flight that worried me. It was simply my sense of self that was suddenly absent. Without a passport and my basic belongings I was quickly transformed into a stateless and identity-less individual. I immediately felt as if I had no rights and no say. It was a very palpable fear of the unknown and a sense of resignation that I was not who I really believed I was.

Thankfully, I was eventually reunited with my passport and my belongings. Besides for some “commissions” that were demanded along the way, I was able to retain my identity and my possessions. But I sure felt violated.

***

In this week’s parsha of Behar-Bechukotai, we are taught the laws of Shemittah (the Sabbatical year) and Yovel (the Jubilee year).  The most widely known regulation of these years – the seventh and fiftieth years – is the prohibition against farming ground in the Holy Land.

However, there is another, lesser-known law about Yovel.  When the 50th year arrives, all debts are forgiven and all real estate returns to its ancestral owners.  Although someone borrowed money from me, when Yovel comes, she is off the hook. Although I pad a fair amount for this home, and raised a family and built memories here – it returns to the tribal owners at the Yovel year.

This – like my African airport experience – can be a cause of great frustration.  I have no way to lay claim to money owed to me. I am withheld from owning property that I paid for and made ‘my own.’ 

Why would the Torah, which seems to otherwise espouse the virtues of hard labor and self-development, suddenly deny me what is rightfully mine? Why make me into an identity-less failure?

***

Who was the most humble man to walk the earth?

According to the Torah, it was Moshe – the most accomplished man to ever live!

How could someone who achieved so much consider himself less valuable and worthy than every other human being? Can this be true humility?! Was Moshe simply feigning humility?

The Chassidic Masters explain that Moshe was not humble because he considered his accomplishments to be inferior to others. That would be dishonest! He truly recognized that he was the most accomplished man on earth. And yet, he was humble before all others. How?

Moshe’s humility did not stem from a lack of self-appreciation or from deception. It derived from an absolute conviction that his accomplishments were due to extraordinary gifts that G-d bestowed upon him. These gifted qualities, however, were not shared with everyone. Had others also been given these gifts, they – Moshe believed – would accomplish even more than him.

His humility lay in his attribution. He credited his success to the Almighty. And thus, humility replaced the expected arrogance of power.

He was a proud man. But his pride was not self-pride. It was pride in the gifts that G-d had bestowed upon him. When viewing everything as gift from G-d, we feel empowered, yet humble.

***

The purpose of the Shemittah and Yovel years is to remind us who is truly the Master of the world. When we recognize that G-d is the sole owner of all property and resources, we don’t feel excluded. Quite the contrary! We feel uplifted that He has chosen us to carry out His mission.

Recognizing G-d as the true Owner of all does not take away my identity. It supplants my ego with a pure sense of true worth.

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