Character at Birth or at Rebirth?

It’s almost Shabbat.  I can feel it.  Just a few more hours of work and then I go home to cook and prepare.  We’re squeezing in one last Shabbat with regular challah before turning the kitchen over Saturday night and Sunday and my planned meal is basically a comforting carb feast.  I can almost taste the kugel!

In the meantime, on some good advice, I’ve been doing a daily study of chita.  This is basically daily Torah study in small, easily digestible bites with some Chassidus (Jewish mystical thought) thrown in for spice.  So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot!  Today, the topic often repeated was about birthdays, partly because it’s the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s z”tl (zecher tzaddik livrocho, which essentially means he has passed away and may he be remembered for a blessing) birthday today.

The idea given was that each person is born with characteristics that are essential to their purpose on this earth.  These aren’t things you’d be taught or that would develop over time, but core parts of your temperment, personality, the deep things that make you who you are meant to be.  You can try to water these down or change them, but on your birthday, it’s said that it’s good to spend some time along trying to remember those parts of yourself and let them guide you toward your purpose in life so that you can live the year to come in a way that is more aligned with what G-d intended for you.

This is so very different than the mindset I was raised in, where you come into this world tainted and corrupted.  I rejected that idea myself long before I ever encountered Judaism.  At my core, there was just something that knew that couldn’t be true and then, when I held my first child and looked down into his perfect tiny face, I absolutely knew to my bones that this isn’t true, that it’s what happens in our lives that tarnishes any shine we were born with because it’s pretty obvious to any mother that babies are born with a perfect, clean slate.  Even putting that aside, though, I was raised in a family where I grew up believing that anything that was natural to me was wrong.  My first reactions to anything needed to be doubted.  I needed to change myself into someone who was more acceptable.

A great example of this is the way my family handled emotion.  My family was proud of being “stoic.”  Emotions were something kept deep inside and a sign of weakness.  I was born a very sensitive child and I would often cry when my father was angry at my brothers even if he was not upset at all at me.  Unfortunately, this would turn his anger toward me.  I also would get worked up to the point of hyperventilating when I was upset or afraid.  I remember my brother z”l (zichrono livrochah, this time meaning he has passed away and may he be remembered favorably, since my brother was not a great Sage, but a good man), holding me and comforting me, but also trying to teach me how to hide how I felt so that I wouldn’t make our father angry.  He was often the only person who could calm me when I was very small.

Now, just to be fair, my father was not abusive and loved us all very much.  He was much further ahead when it came to raising children than his own father and we all grew up well, but it kind of points to how different the world I come from was than this world where a child’s inherent traits are actually something positive, given by G-d and that they are meant to shape that child’s life.

When you have a physical injury, often you’ll begin walking, sitting, or moving in ways that are different in order to compensate or protect your injury.  As a result, your body changes in ways that aren’t healthy, tightening up and creating other issues.  I feel that this kind of happened to my heart.  I built walls around it to be stoic and strong, but over time, those walls didn’t let me connect to people.  They helped stop me from feeling pain or vulnerability, but they also stopped me from feeling real joy or happiness, too.  It’s been the work of my adulthood to slowly soften those walls and to get more back to that sensitive little girl I was so that I can be a better wife and mother.  My family needs my softened heart, not a prickly porcupine, always on defense.  And, just like when you finally do begin to heal that physical injury and muscles loosen up and you feel relief and an easing of movement, so too have I felt my heart become a lot freer and lighter.

I truly believe that I was that sensitive little girl because my purpose was to be open and loving, to cry when I see someone in pain or afraid and then be able to connect with them and comfort them.  When my children were small, especially, they needed that soft-heartedness from me.  G-d knew that and gave me that sensitivity.  It makes me wonder what other traits that I’ve tried to stuff down might actually be my hidden superpowers?

But all of these traits are traits that I was born with as a non-Jew.  If, (G-d willing) I convert, it’s said I will actually be given a new neshama (I often wonder where my old neshama will go, then…is a part of who I am gone?) and be a new person.  In Jewish law, this means even the things I owned before I convert are no longer “mine,” but things I have acquired from a non-Jew.  In a spiritual sense, though, I wonder how much of me…is still me?  Obviously, I’ll still have the same memories and personality and traits, but should I now ponder my traits as they are when I convert or from my birth?  How much has changed between the two and will I also have a new purpose?

Unfortunately, the writings by Sages on such things are limited.  In Chassidus, it’s believed that Jews have a special extra part to their soul that non-Jews don’t have and that on conversion, a non-Jew gains that part meaning that there is a part of the soul that is always the same.  Others believe that converts were born with a Jewish soul and that is why they find their way back and that conversion is just the process of confirming that which was already there.  Still others believe it’s more a swap and that the convert is a completely new person.

Any way you look at it, though…it is a big change and any big change can give our lives a nudge in a new direction.  Maybe my life is more a book with different chapters and at conversion one chapter closes and another begins.

It’s just always good to know there is more story ahead for me, regardless.  I will continue to grow and be shaped and work on being the best person I can be and try to find the path G-d has for me.

Because I agree that we all do have a purpose and that we are each uniquely suited to that purpose.


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