Picture the following scene: You’re in the gym, running on the treadmill and feeling pretty good about yourself. Your speedometer reads a steady 6.5 and you’re keeping an even pace.
As you continue your run you glance over to your right and see some slim, super toned runner, sprinting at a pace far faster than your own and barely breaking a sweat. Suddenly your high spirits take a steep dive. Your speed isn’t fast enough and you’re clearly not in such great shape.
But then you take a look to your left. You notice another exerciser huffing and puffing, struggling to stay on the conveyer belt–at a speed even lower than yours. In a flash, your pride returns.
Sound familiar? It does for me, and if it’s not in the gym then it’s at work or during a test. We all fall prey to judging ourselves based on other people’s standards.
When we evaluate our own performance and determine our personal expectations based on those of others, we hurt ourselves in one of two ways. We either:
1) create a false sense of accomplishment and sell ourselves short of our true potential, or
2) ruin our sense of self-worth and feel like a failure.
You may look at the person next to you and see that you achieved more than he did, and so you feel satisfied and fulfilled. But in reality you are capable of a lot more than he and have hardly tapped into your own resources and potential.
On the other hand is an equally tragic scenario. You put your best foot forward and do great things, yet compared to someone more experienced or equipped, you feel like you’ve done nothing. You feel like a nothing.
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18A) states that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, all people of the world pass before God “כבני מרון” – kivnei maron. The Gemarah (Talmud) offers a number of interpretations for the meaning of this ambiguous phrase.
The first explanation is that it refers to sheep who pass before their shepherd one at a time. The second is that it refers to a specific path which is very narrow and requires walking in a single file line.
Both interpretations share the theme of walking alone, no one by your side. It’s looking at the treadmills to your right and to your left and seeing them vacant.
On Rosh Hashanah we pass before the Master of the World alone, for we are judged for who we are–for what we have made of ourselves in proportion to the potential we have. Not relative to our neighbor, study partner, sibling, or friend.
The time period we have just entered is that of Elul, which is an Aramaic word that means “to look.” It is an opportunity to look inside ourselves. It is a time for introspection. During this month it is crucial that we take a moment (or perhaps more) to evaluate what we have done over the past year and determine what we look to accomplish in the coming one.
But to do this, we must look at ourselves through our personal lens–not through someone else’s. The focus of this time period is teshuva, which means “return.” What are we returning to? We are returning to ourselves, to our own standards, which are a function of our individual circumstances and qualities. (Related: No, Really, How Does Teshuva Work?)
We have a unique opportunity as we begin a new year to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some honest questions:
Do I tell myself that it’s okay for me to gossip just because everybody else does?
Do I not learn Torah for 10 minutes a day because I feel that compared to my friend’s hour of study, my 10 minutes is worthless?
Do I not care to improve upon my davening (prayer) because so many people me around are talking during theirs?
Have I allowed myself to become apathetic to my spirituality because my peers are?
Questions of this nature coupled with sincere self-evaluation are a recipe for a meaningful and growth-filled Elul. When we accomplish this, we take control of our lives. We start the new year with clear direction and a sense of purpose. We won’t look to the right or left but directly ahead, at a brighter future and an ideal self.