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What do you want to be when you grow up?

…is a question I ask boys and girls before their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But really, as I heard Rabbi Moshe Hauer point out at a recent lecture, it’s a question I should be asking all of you, all of us adults. When was the last time we asked ourselves that question? When we were 20? 12? Never? We made that decision of who we are and what we do, either consciously or just fell into it, and for the rest of our lives, this is me. I sit at this desk, I do these tasks, I volunteer in this way, and that’s who I am. But is that it? Are we really done? I hope not. 

There’s a man who’s stealing all the headlines these days, who is anything but a role model in terms of his morality or kindness, but when it comes to this question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ he’s worth paying attention to. Elon Musk is relentless in his pursuit of new frontiers of accomplishment. In 1999, Musk co-founded an online bank which ultimately became known as PayPal, changing the way we transfer money. In 2002, he founded SpaceX, a space transport company that among other things has ambitions of bringing people to Mars. In 2004, he was an early investor in Tesla, eventually becoming its CEO. In 2006, he founded SolarCity, a solar energy company. In 2015, he founded OpenAI, a nonprofit artificial intelligence company. In 2016, he founded NeuroLink, a company that explores the interface between our brain and technology. In the same year, he founded the Boring Company, a company that bores holes underground to solve traffic issues. And in 2022, he bought Twitter (which he probably shouldn’t have done, but that’s another story for another time).

Now none of us have anywhere near the amount of money that this man, the wealthiest man in the world, has. But to never stop, to constantly ask oneself, what do I want to do next? What’s my role to play in this world? That’s a question we should all be asking.

The greatest impediment is not the fact that we are not worth 181 billion dollars like Elon Musk. The greatest impediment is a lack of self-awareness and a fundamental lack of understanding of our role here on earth.  

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Yaakov and Eisav – I can’t think of two more different brothers in the Torah. One a man of the field, a hunter, a brute. The other, a man of purity who never leaves his tent. And yet, the Medrashim inform us that before they reached teenagehood, their parents treated them in exactly the same way. Yitzchak and Rivkah were oblivious to their differences and educated them with one identical style, not differentiating whatsoever in how they treated the worldly, physical, tough Eisav and the spiritual, sensitive, kind Yaakov.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that had they picked up on the characteristic differences of their children, had they custom-tailored their education, had they cultivated the unique gifts that each one of their sons had, history would have been radically different. Eisav, the man who is out to murder his brother, Eisav, the grandfather of our arch enemy Amaleik, Eisav, the godfather of the Romans and all subsequent antisemitism, none of that would have happened. Eisav’s strong character should have been nurtured, channeled, developed in a healthy fashion, but alas – his parents were oblivious to who he was. Instead, says Rav Hirsch, we have thousands of years of violence, pillage, rape, and bus bombings.

It’s quite the accusation. Many took issue with Rav Hirsch’s harsh criticism of Yitzchak and Rivkah. Be that as it may, the point stands – each person is born with unique characteristics. They need to be understood, they need to be cultivated, they need to be utilized.

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, in his magnum opus, Derech Hashem, takes this idea one incredibly important step forward. He explains that G-d created each individual in the world with unique characteristics, this we know. But then he explains the Kabbalistic reason why. Every human being has unique characteristics because every human being has an utterly unique role to play in this world. Personal and collective redemption will only come about when each of us figure out what role we have to play in society.

And it sounds so simple, but it’s not. If you were to ask a career counselor what you should do for a profession, they would tell you to do a SWOT analysis. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, or some other analysis of one’s personality and qualities. What the Ramchal is teaching us is that an analysis of self is only step one. Step two is to do a SWOT of your family, of your community, of the world-at-large. To figure out what you should do with your life, you need to not only figure out who you are, you need to figure out what the world around you is missing and then how you can fix it.

Imagine a graph with your talents on one side, and the needs of your family, your friends, your co-workers, your community on the other side. Where those two lines meet is why you’re here on this planet, why G-d imbued you with a soul. Creating this graph is the most important thing you can do. Because it answers the most fundamental existential question – what am I doing here? We believe there is a purpose. What is mine?

And those things change. The needs of our surroundings change, and we change. This graph needs to be revisited all the time. If we want to fulfil our role here on earth, we need to constantly be asking ourselves, as difficult as it may be, what do I want to be when I grow up?

When I asked this question to our Bar Mitzvah boy, Asher Pensak, I was blown away. He knows who he is. He is not a school guy. He goes to school, but to quote him, “School teaches you to memorize dots, not how to connect them.” He is ambitious and good at doing research – when he wants to know something, he will spend hours reading up on it, and then do it. And that’s why this young man over here is an unpaid consultant to his uncle’s landscaping company. But more than just an unpaid consultant with keys to the company’s excavators and other such vehicles that he should not be driving, he also has ambitions to take over the company. Lunch at the Pensak’s today is going to be so awkward…

Asher, you may just be the next Elon Musk. (And just in case, you know how maser works, right? 10% of 151 billion would go very far in our shul…)

But honestly, I think you’ll go further than Elon Musk. Because you not only know yourself and your skills – one important line on the graph. You also have parents who model for you daily the importance of the second line of that graph; the importance of looking around to see what the community needs, and then taking every one of your skills and using them. Your parents both are probably in this building more than I am; making golf tournaments, volunteering with the youth, cooking meals for the entire shul and more.

Who am I and what does the world around me really need? Those are questions we need to ask ourselves always.

May we recognize our unique talents and qualities and the exclusive role that each of us play in history. And may we never stop asking ourselves, what do I want to be when I grow up?