Dear Rachel,

I am 60 years old. I am an avid reader, and I can’t help feeling depressed and diminished when I read articles about great people and all they have accomplished. These people are involved in projects that help thousands and sometimes millions of people. There are stories of large families, financial success, philanthropy, professional success and a myriad of friends. And as for me, how valuable is my ordinary life compared to all these great, successful, accomplished and altruistic people?

Feeling Worthless

Dear Person of Inestimable Value,

First of all, not everyone strives to make a positive impact on the world. Many people, unfortunately, live with theWanting to make a positive difference is already a great accomplishment desire to see how much they can take from the world—not give—so wanting to make a positive difference is already a great accomplishment. The Torah agrees with you on the importance of accomplishment, but it disagrees regarding the definition of what accomplishment is. The Torah has a much broader definition than what you read.

The Talmud teaches that every person must say to themselves, “The world was created for me.” Everyone has a purpose in this world; we are not here accidentally. We all have a unique mission that only we can achieve. “There is no man who doesn’t have his hour” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers). Everyone is destined to make an impact on the world, even if in their entire life they only do one important thing. That makes their entire existence meaningful and important.

The carburetor may be one of the most important parts of a car, but if it doesn’t have that bolt holding it in place, then it’s worthless. Our lives are so complex that often the ramifications of our existence can be felt for generations, sometimes even centuries. We can’t see the result of our actions because they go on indefinitely. Ethics of Our Fathers teaches us “to be vigilant to perform what seems like a small mitzvah the way we would a larger one because we can’t know the importance of even the smallest mitzvah or the smallest act.”

You see, no one’s life is ordinary.

Suppose I gave you $10 and said, “Go buy me a car.” You wouldn’t be able to do it. You’d likely laugh at me or think me crazy. You certainly wouldn’t feel guilty that you weren’t able to buy the car. Everyone is given certain abilities, talents, resources and life circumstances, and many of them limit us. These limitations are in place to guide us on the path we are meant to take. They direct us to our destiny. It would be unwise to want to be a heart surgeon if you don’t have the skills and are queasy at the sight of blood. But that’s because that isn’t your task in this world.

The Chassidic master, Reb Zushia of Annipoli, was wont to say that when he gets to the Heavenly Court, no one is going to ask him why he wasn’t like Moses. But they will ask him why he wasn’t like Zushia. In other words, it is incumbent on all of us to complete our task in this world, according to our specific strengths and resources. If you have a $100 million, you donate a million. If you have $100, you donate $10. “You are not expected to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither can you ignore it.” Use your resources to the fullest extent possible while not desiring someone else’s mission.

And it is never too late to fulfill your potential. The first 60 years of Moses’ life were spent as a prince inIt is never too late to fulfill your potential Pharaoh’s palace. Although he is credited with having secured a day of rest for the Hebrew slaves, his accomplishments until that point are clouded in mystery. Moses then had to flee the palace for his life and spent the next 20 years in exile as a shepherd. Only at age 80 (and for the next 40 years) did Moses achieve the greatness he was born for—leading the Jewish people out of bondage and teaching them G‑d’s Torah. (But even then, he was limited. His father-in-law, Jethro, told Moses that he needed to delegate, or otherwise he would burn out. Even the greatest prophet of all time had to accept his limitations.)

So what do we learn from this?

  • Your desire to make a contribution means that you are a person of value.
  • Every mitzvah, good deed and act of kindness counts. Do not disparage anything positive you do, even if it seems small in your eyes. You can never be fully aware of its repercussions.
  • You are only expected to do the best you can with the resources you have.
  • We work in tandem with other people. Their accomplishment is necessary for ours, and our accomplishment is necessary for theirs.
  • Every day presents a new opportunity to strive, thrive and be alive. Ask yourself how you can use your abilities and talents to actualize your potential in ways you haven’t before.

Wishing you a wealth of success and a (continued) extraordinary life.