Finding your higher purpose--the importance of self-analysis

In a speech called “What are you doing here?” Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz talks about the significance of the Three Weeks, a period of time in the Jewish calendar before Tisha B’Av when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and “the resultant galut – physical exile and spiritual displacement – in which we still find ourselves.”

Tatz explains that during the Three Weeks, we look inwardly to “identify areas that need work, elements of direction that need to be set.” It’s a “time for self analysis.”

What should we be looking for?

To get to the answer, Tatz raises the question of why the empire of Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed. The Jewish prophet Yechezkel says the reason is that “they didn’t give charity.”

This raises a huge question: Sodom and Gomorrah was known to be a “negative, depraved, brutal, immoral” empire. “Surely, not giving charity was minor” in comparison with their misdeeds. Why were they destroyed for such a seemingly minor reason?

The answer is that they didn’t contribute anything positive to the world. They had no sense of higher purpose. Their philosophy, says Tatz, “was completely insular and isolating – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours…They were completely closed.” They even tortured visitors to teach the lesson that they don’t give to the outside world.

So in the end, Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out because there was “no (positive) output, no production at all,” so what were they here for? The fact is, “breaking the rules is not as bad as lack of production.”

To clarify this point, Tatz gives the example of hiring a maid. Let’s say she cleans well but steals also. It is possible that you will fire her, but it is also possible that you will not—you may confront her instead, or hide your things—because she is still doing what she is supposed to do.

But let’s say the maid comes in at nine a.m., sits in the living room all day, and doesn’t move until she leaves. She doesn’t steal, but she doesn’t clean either. You definitely fire her.

When the world had nothing from Sodom and Gomorrah of a positive nature—when they decided to be totally insulated and isolated—they got destroyed as a result.

The deeper insight here is that G-d expects three things from people: To perform the positive commandments, to not do the negative commandments, and to seek out a higher purpose to their lives. (What Tatz does not say is that #1 and #3 are linked…clearly, doing what you are supposed to do in a positive sense is linked to realizing your higher Torah purpose in life.)

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More explanation of this point from Tatz:

“The Gemara says that when your life is over you transition to another life. Many things happen when you get to that side of the divide. One of them is that three beings come to greet you. Each one has a separate function. The first comes to add up all your mitzvos (positive commandments). The second comes to add up all your sins. The third one comes to see ‘where’s your Torah,’ and is it complete in your hands. You have to express your particular part of the Torah. Each of us is put here to achieve that unique part of that cosmic tapestry.”

Jewish people believe that before a child is born, he is taught the Torah by an angel. That Torah learning includes exactly what his role in life is. And when the child is born, “the angel strikes him on the mouth and he forgets everything that he knew…it is driven deep into the unconscious.”

Thus when we hear something that is spiritually true, we have the sense of “recognizing something that you knew already….Some things strike a chord…when you come close to your purpose in life.” (This is why “one of the main sources of depression is moving along the road that is not where your purpose lies.”)

“The Gemara says that when you die and those three angels come toward you, you recognize the third one as the one who taught you Torah. He’s waiting to see if all that he put into you, if you brought it out.”

The question here is: why do you need three angels? “If you count up all positive actions and all negative actions what else is there? There’s nothing neutral. Even sleeping is a mitzvah if you need it, and wasting an hour sleeping that you don’t need is a sin. If that is so, then what’s the purpose of the third one?”

The answer is that when you get up the world of judgment, you are first asked if you lived by the rules (things you were supposed to do and things you were not supposed to do). But then there is another question: did you follow your higher purpose in life?

Says Tatz: “You can be a meticulous Torah observant Jew and forget who you’re supposed to be.”

The concept of mitzvos is not just to observe for its own sake, but to build yourself as a unique individual. You need to ask the question, “Are you becoming who you’re supposed to be?”

The Rambam, says Tatz, says that “one mitzvah done for the right reason gains you an entire eternal existence in the next world.” True, Hashem does not withhold the reward of any creature. Even if you do a mitzvah for a wrong reason you get a reward.

So you can have excuses for your behavior—that’s in the rules. But there is no excuse for not becoming who you could have been had you lived according to your higher purpose.

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Related points on this issue from Tatz:

The idea of a positive mitzvah is that you are building the spiritual world; the idea behind a negative mitzvah is that you are holding the spiritual world together.

When you violate a negative command, you are literally destroying the spiritual world. That is why the punishment for breaking a negative command is worse than that for breaking a positive command.

Nevertheless, the primary kind of commandment is the positive command—to build, generate, be productive. For example, says Tatz, when you get married, the primary idea is to “build the love”—the positive aspect. Only to protect that love do you have negative commandments—a protective fence against “things that might lead to a lack of loyalty.” But “the positive actions are the essence of what you’re doing.”

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Therefore, says Tatz, “the message is, in this particular time of year, there’s a necessary element of self analysis – who am I and where am I going? “Cheshbon hanefesh” – sit in your bed, and say how am I different now than I was twenty four hours ago? Or once a week at least, on Shabbos? Ask, am I different now. Take stock – sit down and ask yourself, am I different than I was a year ago…aside from mitzvahs. The whole idea of Torah is to change your inner being.”

“It’s time to make that first resolution so that when you finally come face to face with that (angel’s) face that is familiar, that you’ll be able to stand up and show what you’ve done.”