Many of our spiritual giants had an unusual practice. In one pocket, they'd carry a piece of paper with the verse that read: "I am but dust and earth"; in the other, they'd carry a piece of paper with the verse that read: "For me was the world created." It is the integration of these two motifs and feelings that is, at its core, the quest of the person of faith.
Rabbi Zusha, a great Chasidic rebbe and teacher, taught a simple and sublime truth. He said that when he will be called on to give a reckoning and inventory of his life, he will not be asked the question: "Why weren't you like the great Moses? But rather, why weren't you like Zusha? Why did you not obtain the magisterial heights that you could have?"
Do you know the story of Laura Shultz? It's worthy of our attention this day. Several years ago, I heard the tale directly from one of the participants in the drama, and I always think of it and share it at this time of year.
Shultz was a grandmother living in the Orlando, Fla., area, and on this particular day, she was busy in her kitchen preparing some of her grandson's favorite foods. He had come to visit her, and though the weather was rainy and inclement, nothing was going to stop this young boy from being outside and playing in the woods near her home.
But as she was in the kitchen, she heard an ominous sound of skidding tires and knew intuitively that her grandson had been hit by a car. This 65-year-old made a dash for the door, sprinted toward the street, and had her fears tragically confirmed. The boy was pinned under the car.
Rather than run back to the house to dial 911, she ran to the car, and with the strength that comes from pure adrenaline and dire necessity, she did something virtually impossible: Shultz lifted the vehicle and extricated her grandson.
A reporter from the Orlando Sentinel heard about this feat and desperately tried to contact Mrs. Shultz to do a human interest piece. Perplexingly enough, she refused to be interviewed. But as reporters are wont to do, he persisted; still, Laura Shultz kept refusing. It seems that she was even more adamant than he.
In time, the reporter left the Sentinel and the Orlando area. Some years later, now a prominent motivational speaker, he returned there for a speaking engagement. He decided to seek out Mrs. Shultz and determine the reason she was so modest. He went to her home, unannounced, and introduced himself as the man who kept trying to get an interview. She turned cold. But after a few cups of tea, the reporter recalled the issue one last time.
"Mrs. Shultz, I truly don't understand," he said. "Why are you so set against having your incredible story in print?"
Listen to Mrs. Shultz's reason for refusing to be interviewed — it is almost as plaintive as was the shofar this week. "If I, a 65-year-old grandmother at the time, was able to lift up that car, can you imagine what I could have done with the rest of my life?"
Our tradition is equally as insistent that the question being posed to us is not, why am I not like Moshe, Zusha or Shultz — but why am I not the person that I am supposed to be?
The word that we invoke a lot this time of year is teshuvah, normally translated as "return" or "repentance." It's as difficult a concept to explain as it is to actualize. But in Hebrew, the word also means "answer."
So, nu, what is the question?
In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Life is the question, and Judaism is the answer."
May we all merit to become inspired during these High Holy Days.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.