Identity-Driven Circumstances

Shmuel Shuchat, Montreal, Canada
Essays 2018

Many of us have, at one point, challenged ourselves to achieve a life-defining goal. A majority have reached the point of creating a plan to achieve that goal. Some of us have even followed that plan for a time. But how many of us have actually achieved our goals. Through the prism of a fascinating talk given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe(1) on the Rambam, this essay will offer a different, yet more effective, method for becoming who we would like to be.

The Rambam writes(2) that there are three steps necessary for an aspiring convert to become Jewish; circumcision, immersion in a Mikvah and bringing a Korban,a sacrifice. The Rambam continues, since we currently have no Temple, and therefore no Korbanos, only circumcision and immersion are required for conversion. The Rambam concludes that when the Temple is rebuilt (may it be speedily in our days) the convert will then bring the Korban.

Elsewhere, The Rambam(3) writes a contradictory statement that the absence of a Korban, in fact, holds the convert back from becoming a full convert to Judaism and he is not permitted to eat from Korbanos like other Jews are.

The Rebbe analyzes this Rambam:

Can it be possible that since the Destruction of the Temple there have been no full converts to Judaism!? From the words of the Rambam it certainly appears so! It must be that we do not understand this Rambam correctly.

The Rebbe highlights the words “holds him back” and delivers a remarkable elucidation of this Rambam. Rather than being the grand finale of the conversion processes, an aspiring convert’s bringing a sacrifice to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem serves quite a different purpose, that of the removal of an impediment to conversion. Bringing a Korban does not convey Jewishness, rather it allows for the conversion process to continue to its end unopposed. Circumcision and Immersing in a Mikvah are from a precise reading of the words of the Rambam, entering into the covenant of Abraham. Bringing the Korban is the removal of an obstacle to entering into this covenant. This a striking difference in the realm of Jewish law and as we shall soon see in Jewish thinking.

The Rambam’s three step conversion process can and should be read as;

A. Positive steps to convert: Circumcision, Immersion in a Kosher Mikvah.

B. Removing negative obstacles to conversion: Bringing a Korban.

Since there is currently no Temple and no sacrifice, the removal of this obstacle does not apply and the first positive steps are sufficient.

The Rebbe takes it a step further and points out that from a precise reading of the Rambam, the convert is not obligated to bring a Korban once the Temple is rebuilt. The Rebbe points out; the Rambam in the latter quote is saying that even though the Korban no longer has a bearing in his conversion process, he should still bring the Korban.

The convert wasn’t required to convert, nor to have a circumcision done or immerse in a Mikvah, but now having “committed” and assumed the identity of a “convert” he has an important task, but it is not a life-defining task, to bring a korban.

As we work toward attaining our own goals in life, we can start from two very different perspectives-from a checklist of tasks that, once accomplished transform us, or by assuming a role that requires us to behave in a certain way.

Consider a young couple becomes parents for the first time. There is no checklist. They do not go through a rigorous screening process and complete tests and tasks to determine they are ready to be parents. Rather, they immediately assume the identity of a parent. This is followed by all the tasks which parents must perform, the parents though, are buttressed by their core commitment to their identity as parents.

This can be further illustrated with the following parable. It happened once that a bochur, a young lad, decided he wanted to be a Shliach, a Chabad emissary, so he sought out his friends and asked, “What is a Shliach?” One told him “A Shliach builds a chabad house” Another said, “A Shliach fundraises for his moised.” Yet another told him, “A Shliach gives speeches.” The bochur recorded all of their responses. He then decided to seek out Mr. Gold, a wealthy and generous man in the community, to ask him to sponsor a Chabad house for him so that he could be a Shliach. Mr. Gold was in fact generous, but he was also very wise. He answered the bochur kindly, but firmly. “I only sponsor Chabad houses for Shluchim not for bochurim”…

The correct approach, as taught by this Talk of the Rebbe, is to first to become that what you want to be, and then to fulfill the requirements that a person acquires by being that. Incorporating this approach, a person must proactively change his identity, but the change, rather than being driven by “outside factors” is driven from an inner commitment.

It was not the speaking ability or the Chabad house that would make the bochur a Shliach. It was his inner commitment “I am the Rebbe’s Shliach.” Responsibilities and obligations must then be assumed. Hence, the bochur would need to work to find a place to go on Shlichus, make a home; plan fundraising projects, and prepare classes and talks, ect. The former bochur, now Shliach, could attack each of those tasks because his inner commitment has been defined.

This subtle difference between an identity driven by outside circumstances, albeit that you are affecting those circumstances, and an identity in which outside circumstance are driven by the identity, has important ramifications for people considering all kinds of life changes.

If a person decides he wants to be a “nice person” there is a list of things a mile long he could check off in order to attain his goal of being a “nice” person. Smiling at others, carrying groceries for old ladies, giving up your aisle seat on an airplane, being polite to the rude person in the parking lot, a myriad of tasks! Once you have completed your checklist, then congratulations, you are a nice person! The message here, however, is to first commit yourself to being a nice person, and you are one. Now that you have joined the ranks of nice people, here is what is required of you.

Circumstance-driven identity causes a person to work from a task list, some tasks on the list being difficult to complete. Failure of some of those tasks could result in the person giving up. Maybe that is why many people never attain their goals.

Incorporating the Identity-driven method, the inner commitment creates an automatic buy-in that allows a person to view the requirements and tasks as essential life activities. While some tasks may be more of a challenge, they do not thwart him from moving forward, for he has defined who he is. If a mother forgot to change her baby’s diaper is she no longer a parent? A Shliach’s Shabbos sermon flopped, does he hang up his hat and quit? These are mere tasks, but do not define the person. It is the inner commitment which becomes essential to life, which continues to propel one forward to complete one’s goals, as sure as eating or breathing. And, since when did a person who forgot to eat breakfast, skip lunch?

1. Likkutei sichos volume 26, p.160

2. Laws of forbidden relations 13:1-5

3. Laws of individuals requiring atonement