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Ask Yourself the First Question in Recorded History

September 12, 2022 | by Hanna Perlberger

Each moment of life asks you who you are being right now. If you don't like the answer – change it.

Viktor Frankl, one of the most preeminent thought leaders of the last century, was a concentration camp survivor. Every day he wondered: Will I be beaten today? Will I eat today? Will I die today? Frankl realized that in taking away every freedom, Auschwitz had shrunk him into animalistic thinking. He was preoccupied with questions that he considered "small" and wanted to ask more important questions.

Frankl realized that despite everything, he had one freedom left – and it was by far the most important freedom of all – the freedom to choose. As Frankl famously wrote in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Ask yourself: "Who am I – in the presence of this?"

This question isn’t just for concentration camps or even the lesser terrors of life. It's a question you could ask yourself in any moment: the "this" of being stuck in traffic, the "this" of waiting for test results, the "this" of making a mistake and feeling foolish, etc.

Behavior Follows Identity

Simply asking a question creates a pause, a pivotal moment in which you can choose your way. You have been at this crossroad, this challenge, this trigger point before. Are you going to go down a different path, or create an alternate ending to the story you have written so many times? For the hundredth time, you're dealing with a child that has stretched you to the limit – "If I were the best parent I could be right now, I would …." You're arguing with your spouse – probably a variation of the same disagreement you've been having for years – "If I were the best spouse, I could be right now, I would… If I were the bravest, most compassionate, ethical, forgiving, etc., person I could be right now, if I were the best version of myself, I would….

These questions are a variation of: Who am I – in the presence of this? How you answer the question shapes your identity. And then your behavior follows – as it inevitably must – for better or worse.

Behavior follows identity. That's what God was trying to get at with Adam.

The First Question in Recorded History

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve. But in the very next breath they disobeyed their Creator by eating the forbidden fruit and tried to hide behind a bush.

God then asked the first question in recorded history: "Where are you?" This was not a cosmic game of hide and seek. Says the Alter Rebbe, a Hassidic rabbi of the 1700s, this question means: "Who are you?" In other words, who are you that this was even possible? Adam admitted that he ate the fruit, and the English translation is in the past tense. But in the Hebrew text, a letter is inserted that makes the verb also in the future tense. There is a Midrash (an ancient commentary) to explain that the deep meaning of the verb is twofold: I ate, and I will eat in the future. It's as if Adam were saying: Put me in the same position, and I'll do it again. If I identify as the apple-eating guy, then I will always eat because that is who I am.

It's a given that despite your best intentions, you won't be the best version of yourself every time. The vibrations of the last shofar of Yom Kippur blast hang in the air when again you are asking for forgiveness. You (and everyone else) ate the apple. But even if you eat the apple again, that doesn't make you an apple-eater! Making a mistake doesn’t make you the mistake itself. It's a behavior - not your identity – unless you choose to make it who you are.

What is God Asking of You – Right Now?

You want to be written in the Book of Life. So be alive! If you (like most of us) are comfortably numb, or going through life half asleep, the blast of the shofar can awaken you.

Each moment of life asks you who you are being right now. If you don't like the answer – change it. It's not easy. Life pulls you in opposite directions – between an animal and a Godly soul, an inclination to choose wisely, and an inclination that pulls you down.

During this lead-up time to Rosh Hashanah, it’s easier to feel God’s presence in your life. You can attain the extra clarity that can dissolve your self-imposed delusions and distractions. It’s the time to get down to the bones of who you really are and embrace the identity that will bring forth the best version of yourself, to choose how you will best serve the moment, and ultimately serve God.

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