“I can’t do it! I am __________!”
How many times have we heard this complaint from children, and indeed from adults? How many times have we said it ourselves? This protest sounds reasonable, but it limits us in extremely dangerous ways.
The question often defines the answer. Worst of all is, “Who am I to do this?”, implying that the task should fall to someone else. “Can I do this?” is better, but it still admits to the possibility of failure. The formulation I prefer – and which I ask everyone on my team to use as a default – is: “How do I do this?” If we are always looking for answers, we are much more likely to make progress.
The difference comes down to whether a person thinks of themselves as a verb or a noun: are we defined by what we do, or are we defined by what we are? I submit that this issue is at the very heart of the differences between successful individuals, cultures and nations, and those who merely tick the boxes, the quiet billions who live their lives, exist within the boundaries of their nature and nurture, and leave this earth without making much of an impact either way.
It starts with the mind, and with childhood. Of all the bullying by students and categorization by teachers and well-intentioned adults, the most dangerous are the labels that become the excuse for inaction and for the status quo: “I am stupid” is the most obvious, but even simple adjectives describing body type or physical limitations are enough to sap ambition. Everyone remembers that offhand remark from a peer or teacher or parent – the statement about one’s limitations, of not being smart enough or attractive enough. These sorts of statements, which often are classified as loshon horah, “evil speech” in Judaism, inject a slow but crippling poison in the ears of the listeners. We are forbidden from speaking about other people in this way, because such speech constrains what the listeners themselves believe they are capable of achieving.
We are even forbidden to say them about ourselves! When tasked by G-d to approach Pharaoh, Moshe claims that he cannot do it because of some speech impediment. G-d replies: ‘Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I the LORD?” (Ex. 4:11) but Moshe will not budge. Once a man has it in his head that he is not capable of something, even G-d Almighty, in a direct confrontation, cannot change his mind! Our own self-perception is often our greatest enemy. In this case, G-d loses the argument, because he gives in, and Aharon is tasked with the speaking role.
The Torah tells us that the world itself is, indeed, a thing, a noun. We are to accept it, and use it. When we make an altar, we are not supposed to use tools on it, to not contaminate it with our own action, but to keep it as basic and unimproved as a heap of ground or stones can be. The ground that we use for an altar should represent all ground, to be a thing in itself. A sacrifice has the explicit goal of connecting heaven and earth – both are things, nouns.
But the human addition to the altar is forbidden to be our physical substance: our part is one of action. G-d tells the Jewish people that the altar should have a ramp, not steps, so that “you should not expose your nakedness,” suggesting that climbing steps requires more separation between the legs (Ex. 20:23).
Mankind’s role in holiness is not to contribute our own bodies, not to add our own physicality: we are not the sacrificial animal. Our role is to be the catalyst, the kinetic force that brings the nouns together. And when we do this, we have to make our entire bodies into verbs – climbing a ramp requires us to bow, engaging our entire bodies; when we climb steps, our upper bodies can remain erect and distinct from our legs. To create holiness, we have to be the motive force, while the earth and heaven are the static bodies that are connected through us.
The lesson is clear enough: when we define ourselves by our physical attributes, then we are limiting who we are. The Torah almost never tells us of a person’s physical appearances unless it is something that the person themselves thinks makes them limited in some way (such as Moshe’s speech impediment). Our lives are supposed to be lived and defined by what we choose to do, not by how we are born or raised, or even how others define us. While we live, we are supposed to be verbs, not nouns. There will be plenty of time to be a mere hunk of matter when we are six feet under.