Ethical will: Be true to yourself

There is nothing new under the sun, including in this ethical will, but I feel it necessary to plant some flags. Also, in embarking upon this endeavor, I am taking my own advice by being true to myself. As this feels important to me, I shall respect that drive.

To start:

There are many voices around you, but you must listen to your own voice.

– Pocahontas to King James, Disney’s Pocahontas II (1998)

The obvious and necessary first step towards being true to yourself is listening to yourself, as noted by Disney’s Pocahontas. From birth, we are shaped by multiple, external voices, and while these ought not be disregarded, be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

Listening to one’s self does not come easily to everybody, particularly not to children, for they rely upon their parents’ guidance to develop their understandings of the world. Parents need strike a balance between encouraging their children to draw their own conclusions about their life experiences and explaining everything to them. As children develop, the balance should naturally shift.

Famously, God said to Abram (Gen. 12):

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Go to yourself, from thy land, and from thy homeland, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

This verse continues to fascinate scholars today, and I deliberately chose this translation over others that are also broadly accepted. (I believe this to be the most literal translation)

Essentially, in order to “go to himself” (to become himself?) Abram (who would later receive the name Abraham) had to leave the land where he was living, the land he had been born in, and his family. One could nitpick over what other influences shape us during our formative years, but I believe the Torah, in its literary way, was suggesting that Abram had to distance himself from every influence in his life in order to truly realize himself. Only by doing so could Abram eventually become the father of the Jewish nation.

Metaphorically, we all need, at some point, to step back from the major influences in our lives in order to most deeply understand ourselves at our cores. What remains of “you” when you change your circumstances? Of course, there are sundry influences upon each of us, and it may be nigh impossible to distance ourselves from all of them simultaneously… but that misses the point, which is: we must attempt to identify the external forces acting upon us in order to best understand ourselves.

We can always step back towards them later, with awareness, and some may, in fact, be very positive and even dear to us. (NB: I am in no way repudiating the tremendous potential value of any of our formative influences)

* * *

There is at least one other angle to this idea that I would like to touch upon, which is: I believe that those who respect themselves most will remain true to themselves, regardless of outside expectations.

Later in Genesis, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, and advises them as follows in chapter 46:

לג וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִקְרָא לָכֶם פַּרְעֹה; וְאָמַר, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם. 33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation?
לד וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, אַנְשֵׁי מִקְנֶה הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מִנְּעוּרֵינוּ וְעַד-עַתָּה–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבֹתֵינוּ: בַּעֲבוּר, תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן, כִּי-תוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, כָּל-רֹעֵה צֹאן. 34 that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.’

However, it turns out that Joseph’s brothers have a strong sense of confidence in their identities. In chapter 47, they introduce themselves to Pharaoh as follows:

ג וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל-אֶחָיו, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, רֹעֵה צֹאן עֲבָדֶיךָ–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבוֹתֵינוּ. 3 And Pharaoh said unto his brethren: ‘What is your occupation?’ And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers.’
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לָגוּר בָּאָרֶץ בָּאנוּ, כִּי-אֵין מִרְעֶה לַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וְעַתָּה יֵשְׁבוּ-נָא עֲבָדֶיךָ, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן. 4 And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘To sojourn in the land are we come; for there is no pasture for thy servants’ flocks; for the famine is sore in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, we pray thee, let thy servants dwell in the land of Goshen.’

And… then… even though “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians”, Pharaoh responds by putting Joseph’s brothers in charge of the royal livestock. Hardly a rejection, is it?

Certainly, I would be among the last to suggest that any reading of a religious text is correct to the exclusion of others, but this understanding of these verses reads particularly true to me: Pharaoh gave Joseph’s brothers respect for staying true to themselves, in the face of external pressure to hide their true identities.

As I wrote above:

… be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

* * *

I’d like to bring this home with a classic Hasidic tale about Reb Zusha of Hanipol, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, who, in turn, was a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. It goes as follows:

Reb Zusha was laying  on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him.

One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? In your life, you have been as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” 

Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?'”

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