Do We Create Or Discover Ourselves?

Last month, I was lucky enough to visit Bob Dylan’s Retrospectrum at Florida International University in Miami. The exhibit was extraordinary and included paintings, writings, and sculptures from the artist. As I meandered through the exhibit, I was struck by the diversity of art that was collated in one space. And if I’m being truly honest, I pondered how unfair for one human being to be gifted with such creativity, skill, and genius!

In the opening exhibit, there was a short film highlighting Dylan’s origins, focusing on his upbringing in a small mining town in Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan was quoted with sharing the following remark, “Life is not about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself.” I was struck by his words and have been pondering for weeks now, how a teenager moved from a small town in northern Minnesota to New York City to create himself, as a musician and songwriter. I understand why he said what he said; he did not move to New York city to find himself, he moved to create himself.

I was so struck by his words and have turned them over and over again in my thoughts. On the one hand, I agree that each of us is the sovereign of our own destinies; we have the freedom to create who we want to be. And yet, there is also part of me that believes life is about finding, uncovering and discovering the past in order to learn our individual origin story. 

As a person who loves history and has been steeped in Jewish life, there is a gnawing voice in me that knows we are who we are because of those who came before us. For many of us, our life’s circumstances can be linked to our ancestors’ personal and collective actions. Not that our birth is our destiny, but we can have a better understanding of ourselves once we appreciate those who came before us. I whole-heartedly believe that we can change and grow and move on and create who we ultimately want to become AND for me, part of creating ourselves is inextricably linked to finding ourselves in relationship to our past.

Several weeks ago, we finished celebrating Passover, where we retell our story of how the Jewish people were freed from slavery, to future generations,. Throughout the seder we encourage questions to be asked and we read in the Haggadah–B’khol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’illu, hu yatzah mimitzrayim– In every generation, one must see themselves as if they personally went forth from Egypt. As Jews, year after year, we retell the Exodus story. Through this collective retelling, we connect ourselves to our past in order to ensure our Jewish future. By learning about our people’s history, we find ourselves as a link in a millennial-old chain of transmission. We find ourselves and discover the values and behaviors from which we are birthed.

However, that finding is not the end of our story.

On the second seder night, we begin counting the omer and count for forty-nine days, until we arrive at Shavuot, the festival marking our ancestors receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. There is a kabbalistic way of counting the omer that involves permutating the lower seven sefirot (divine attributes); thereby, creating new ways of seeing these sefirot which include: loving-kindness, discipline, balance, endurance, humility, bonding, nobility. During these seven weeks, we take time to reflect on the movement of these divine attributes which are also found within each one of us. When we count the omer, we are provided with an opportunity to create ourselves anew, through fresh interpretations and insights. 

Looking through these lenses of Passover and Shavuot brings me back to Bob Dylan’s remark. While I agree with many of his sentiments, this time, I find myself diverging from his words. I believe life is about both–finding AND creating ourselves. It is not an either/or, rather a both/and. When we are able to reflect on our history and learn about our past, we can find ourselves and when we connect to our own soul’s yearnings and passions, we can create ourselves. 

As we each embark on our journeys of finding and creating ourselves, I pray the words of Bob Dylan:

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung.”

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