A High Holiday Knock-Knock Joke

“Knock knock!”
“Who’s there?”
“Me who?”

A silly childhood joke, right? Perhaps, but it could also be viewed as one of the most compelling questions of all time.

Because, if asked differently, the question “Me who?” is actually: “Who am I?”

Since the beginning of time, we have been attempting to understand and articulate who we are as individuals. In the Bible, human nature was defined by our relationship to God and creation. The ancient Greeks and Romans understood human temperaments by adopting the four humors of Hippocratic medicine. The Hindus developed Ayurveda, a medical system still used today, basing human nature on three doshas, or elements. And Shakespeare crafted characters like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet with the four bodily humors in mind. Each one of these systems attempted to define the “essentials” that make us human.

Who am I? A difficult, complex question to answer for sure. Because at any given time in life, we are many things and those things change, ebb and flow, over the course of our lives.

Perhaps, then, the better question to ask is: “Who am I …. at this age and stage of my life?”

Recently, while hiking in Montana, I thought a lot about this question. At 63, I am a very different person than I was at 23, before I had even met my husband or given birth to my children. In my 40’s, I was just coming into my own professionally and everything seemed possible as I shifted careers from law to Jewish studies and my family blossomed. And now, as I enter the golden years, I bring with me the wisdom of the first six decades as well as the awareness of the precariousness of life and the uncertainties inherent in growing older.

As I climbed higher towards the peak through a hillside blanketed in a tapestry of flowers, I found myself wondering: “If I had only a year to live, how would I want to live my life?”

Contrary to what this might suggest, I wasn’t feeling the slightest bit depressed or morbid. Rather, the question came from sheer appreciation for my good health, family and friends; it arose from a desire to clarify my priorities as I approach the final third of my life.

A decade ago in the movie “The Bucket List,” two terminal cancer patients, played by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, escaped their cancer ward to take a road trip to do the things on their “wish list” of life. The movie got people talking and set off a rash of skydiving, kite surfing and out of the box road trips that had tourism booming for a while. But we shouldn’t wait for an illness to inspire us to fulfill our hearts desires. Because by then, it’s often too late.

The bucket list focused on what two dying men wanted to do in the time they had left. But at this time of year, as we approach the Jewish High Holidays, we are called upon to reflect on who we want to be in the year ahead.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur beckon us to take a hard look at our life in order to assess our relationships, goals, successes and failures. In a sense, it’s a Jewish bucket list of the soul. We ask ourselves questions like: What do I want to change in the coming year? What relationships do I want to repair that remain damaged? Can I be better person, a more compassionate friend, a more caring daughter, a more supportive spouse? This type of hard questioning is called a Heshbon Nefesh, which in Hebrew literally means “an accounting of the soul.”

This sort of introspection demands that we stop and listen to that inner voice that guides us to make choices that are consistent with our most essential self. It helps us consciously prioritize our time, relationships and resources so that we live a more meaningful life. And it requires a type of mindfulness that I call “paying attention to our intentions.”

Living with intention, or kavannah in Hebrew, is a gift we can give ourselves regardless of our health, financial status or even emotional well-being for the simple reason that it is based on personal, autonomous choice. Even in the midst of a crisis or serious illness, we can still choose to live with dignity, honesty, love and compassion. In fact, doing so often gives meaning to an otherwise seemingly meaningless act of fate or unexpected tragedy.

It is so easy to be distracted from paying attention to our intentions. Cell phones ring and we are off and running; work demands our time and attention at the expense of the family and friends we love. Rosh Hashanah presents us with an annual opportunity to engage in meaningful introspection that can help us not only answer the question “who am I?” but also, “who do I want to be?” And if we choose, it can inspire us to live with kavannah so that we can become our best and most essential self.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide. amyhirshberglederman.com

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