We often define ourselves by other people. I know who you are, but who am I?
The Kotzker Rebbe famously said: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then you are not you and I am not I. If, however, I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you.”
Beginning with the homes we grew up in, parental attitudes, then the ideas we picked up in our formative school years, followed by the social mores of our times – all types of forces contribute to shaping our identities, thus making it more difficult to know who you would have been without those influences.
Especially today, with the ubiquity of social media, defining who we are becomes more and more difficult. Seeing others’ photos, posts, tweets, personal lives on display, it is becomes harder to recognize our own lives for what they are, without comparing them to someone else’s.
Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that with the unprecedented affluence, with which we are gifted today, comes also unprecedented anxiety, depression, and lack of purpose. Today, when we have more things than ever before, we also find it most challenging to know who we are.
As Jews, whenever we are faced with such a fundamental question – who are we, as people, as Jews, as individuals – the one place we turn to naturally is the Torah. Who we are is defined by the One Who made us who we are. And, thankfully, the One shared with us exactly what that is, and how to define it.
The Torah’s answer – aided by the Midrash – shows us how to define our true self. And it is further illustrated by a story about an agunah and the Vilna Gaon.