US News’ Top 50 Schools. Forbes’ 500 Richest People in the World. TIME’s 50 Most Influential People. Valedictorian of her class. The Salutatorian a close 2nd. Gold Medal. Silver Medal. And barely worth mentioning — the Bronze Medal.
We’re constantly ranking and being ranked. It’s a central part of our culture. Smith’s theory of the free market and Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest have become hallowed cornerstones of our philosophy of life.
Of course, you have to “be nice” along the way. Good sportsmanship and all that. But when we’re brutally honest — this is a competition.
None of us want to believe this, and we’ll address why not, but we must first open our eyes to how pervasive this message is. The schooling system is built on it, with the bell curve its most overt manifestation, but with many more subtle forms as well. Pop culture is constantly feeding us who’s “hottest,” “richest,” “most this” and “most that.” And in our companies and organizations, we competing against each other often for promotions if not for respect and admiration alone.
We would be delusional to think that this ubiquitous mindset doesn’t impact our spiritual sensibilities.
Of course, we’re not so immature or shallow so as to think that life is about amassing wealth or number of social connections. We’ve grown out of that. But on some level, we probably believe, whether we’ve articulated it or not, that there is some super complicated algorithm that calculates the sum total of “everything that matters”: the number and quality of our relationships, how much knowledge we’ve acquired and the insight we have, the social impact we’ve made, perhaps how many mitzvot we’ve done, and of course, how much fun we’ve had along the way, which must be included in any full assessment of life’s value. All of these get put into the machine, and out comes a number that is our Bottom Line Score.
…Someone may be richer than me, but I bet I have more fun…Someone seems to be having more fun than me, but I’m going to have more of an impact in the world…
We are thus competing for “the Best Overall Life.”
This is the Great Fallacy in the World.
It is the root of judgment between people. That terrible pit-in-your-stomach feeling when you feel judged is the perception that someone is calculating your Bottom Line Score as a person, and estimating whether it’s above or below theirs. It comes from a complete distortion on what life is about. We all know it’s crooked whether or not we can explain why.
We have it backwards: we picture life like a racetrack with 7 billion lanes. We are together insofar as we’re competing against one another.
The opposite is in fact true: we are together in everything except for the competition between us. We are competing only against ourselves. We are together to help each other, learn from each other, love each other, and work together for the greater good, but we are not competing against one another.
Today is the eve of the Day of Judgement. None of us will be judged in comparison to one another. The very thought is absurd. Thirty seconds of sustained contemplation reveals that no two people can be compared as human beings. No two people have the same circumstances, abilities, sensitivities, inner challenges, experiences, relationships — and perhaps more importantly — who says that we all have the same purpose in the world? Perhaps we’re here to serve totally different purposes? And if that is the case, what meaning is there to the comparison? It would be like a swimmer racing a sprinter, a pole vaulter competing against a high jumper, or even a high diver against a horseback rider.
We will be judged in the only way that makes sense — each of us is judged only against our own potential. The only question asked of us is: are we becoming the people we were born to be? I can only be expected to be me and you can only be expected to be you. I have to discover my role in the world and you have to discover yours. We both have to live up to ourselves and ourselves alone. I have no way to judge you, and you have no way to judge me.
To the degree to which we get this, we turn our attention away from judging others, and we look to judge ourselves. Are we the best versions of ourselves? Whatever assets we have and whatever we’ve achieved up until now, just means that more is expected from us. Are we living up to our own values? We may not be living up to other people’s standards, but are we living up to our own? In a sense, this is scarier than being compared to other people.
The degree to which we understand this, is the degree to which we turn back towards other people, this time not to judge them but to be irreplaceable parts of their lives. We must walk into our Judgment with arms linked. If we can’t survive the true judgement on ourselves as individuals, we can certainly survive as a community.
Think about the people that depend on you. Your parents. Your kids. Your siblings. Your friends. Your colleagues. Your grandparents. Your grandchildren. Your students.
They need your love. Your guidance. Your listening ear. Your insight. Your example. Your empathy. Your inspiration.
We have two obligations in this world. The first is to try and be the best version of ourselves because no one can do it for us. The second is to do everything we can for those around us who need us. We need them too. If not for them, we probably wouldn’t make it through a personal audit. But together, arms linked, we will, with Hashem’s help, have a good and sweet year of helping each other become the people we were born to be.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Shana Tova Umetuka,
(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)