September 21st, 2023

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll to the bottom of the page)

One of the most fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves on Yom Kippur – and, indeed, answer! – is: “Who am I”?

The trouble is, most of us don’t bother asking that question because it seems pointless. We assume we know the answer without much introspection, so why bother asking it? We know who our parents are or were; we know which community we belong to; we know which country we live in; we know what our daily schedule is – and so it goes on.

If we were compelled to compose a tidy list of bullet points describing who we are, it would surely prove to be one of the easiest tasks we’ve ever been given. But would that list, that summary of affiliations and roles, genuinely represent who we are? Or is there a deeper layer, often overlooked, that defines our true essence?

Masters of the nineteenth-century Mussar movement – which focused heavily on Jewish ethical teachings and on striving to live a moral life – were determined to propel the question of “Who am I?” to the forefront of our minds. And although they differed in approach, all agreed that self-awareness is the only route to self-improvement.

Superficial knowledge of the facts of our lives is merely a smokescreen that masks the truth of who we really are. Meanwhile, diving into the depths of our souls or inner selves and trying to get to the bottom of our individualities might just reveal surprising, and sometimes unsettling truths about what makes us tick.

This idea was vividly brought home to me in a recent article I read about two 67-year-old Canadians: Richard Beauvais and Eddy Ambrose. Richard Beauvais grew up believing himself to be part of the Métis people, a distinct Indigenous nation from the Canadian Prairies, with a unique history, culture, language, and way of life. Simultaneously, Eddy Ambrose was raised in a Ukrainian catholic community in Manitoba. He was deeply immersed in Ukrainian traditions and had a particular fondness for pierogies.

Then, two years ago, Richard Beauvais’s daughter became interested in her family ancestry and did a DNA test. Surprisingly, the results revealed no Indigenous roots whatsoever. Instead, she discovered that her father came from Ashkenazi Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish stock.

Richard, who had always identified as Métis, brushed off the results and tried to get on with his life in British Columbia. But, as luck would have it, Eddy Ambrose simultaneously faced a similar revelation. Despite having grown up as a Ukrainian catholic, his DNA test indicated he was actually Métis.

After finding each other via the DNA testing website and enduring a tortuous journey through official records, the two men eventually concluded that they had been accidentally switched at birth after being born hours apart at a rural Canadian hospital.

For 65 years, each had lived out the other one’s life. Mr. Beauvais suffered a challenging childhood, exacerbated by Canada’s harsh treatment of Indigenous communities which eventually saw him end up in foster care, while Mr. Ambrose relished a joyful upbringing surrounded by the warm Ukrainian traditions of his family, although he was utterly disconnected from his actual roots. The discovery of who they really were compelled both men to reevaluate their identities, with each of them striving to reconstruct a potential past and grasp its implications.

This story reminded me of another extraordinary story that occurred almost twenty years ago. In 2005, Jeremy Paxman – at the time one of the UK’s best-known political interviewers – agreed to participate in a TV program called “Who Do You Think You Are?”, in which “celebrities study their lineages and family trees, usually learning surprising secrets they never knew about their families.”

Although Paxman told a reporter that “most television” is “rubbish”, he said he had agreed to do the program because he thought that the chance to explore some “social history” might be a worthwhile exercise.

But despite his initial cynicism about the program, and his general attitude of skepticism, the normally tough and impassive Paxman was unexpectedly reduced to tears on camera after discovering that his great, great, great grandmother had been a domestic servant in Scotland who died in her thirties of tuberculosis and exhaustion.

“Hundreds of thousands of people must have lived like this and died like this,” he noted. “I don’t know these people, I wouldn’t recognize them if I fell on them, but I’m connected to them.”

Most of us don’t have such dramatic secrets in our own past, or in our family’s past, but at the same time, most of us also have no real sense of who we are beyond some superficial family narratives that are conveniently airbrushed so that they align with the way we live our lives in the present.

But the truth is: knowing who we are as people is not just about us knowing what we like having for breakfast, or what our favorite color is. While such trivial information may help us get through our day, it will never enable us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.

When we sit in shul on Yom Kippur, reflecting on the past year and looking ahead to the next, we need to do more than just cherry-pick those pieces of information that keep us in safe and comfortable territory. We must be acutely aware of our parents and ancestors, the sacrifices they made so that they could be true to their heritage, and the importance they placed on ensuring that their children could have the best possible lives.

Most importantly, we need to delve deeply into who we are as people, and leave no stone unturned in the quest to discover our true selves and the essence of who we really are. We don’t need a DNA test to do that, and we don’t need to comb through ancient archives. We can simply be open with ourselves and be ready to admit that life is more than a list of bullet points. And if we do it properly, that is what will turn Yom Kippur from just another day into a truly life-changing experience.

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