“I never had a one day transformative calling. I’ve felt called every day of my life.”
I found myself speaking these words last year, during a filming session for “The Calling,” which will air nationwide on PBS later this month. I agreed to be filmed for this interfaith documentary as a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah because I believe deeply in its message, to show the human struggle shared by clergy of all faiths.
In being involved in this film, I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to repeatedly reflect upon my personal calling.
A calling is like love. Anyone who has been in love knows what it feels like. But one who has never been in love might question whether love even exists since the concept can be totally abstract. So too with personal purpose: one must feel it to know it.
As a rabbi, I have the opportunity to meet people every day who are longing deeply to find their path—career, life partner, spiritual community—and yearning most of all for meaning and connection.
Recently, one student very innocently said to me: “Rabbi, I want to find G-d. How do I do that?” We are all looking for our internal spiritual compass, external inspiration and clarity and for guidance along our life journey.
The language of “calling” feels to me more Christian than Jewish since I think of a Jewish calling as more autonomous and internally cultivated with struggle rather than an external idyllic voice, but I do in fact believe that each of us has, or at least can have, “a calling” in this life.
This calling can be existential or professional or can pertain to life purpose or identity. The call can be a loud scream or a subtle beckon, unambiguous from the start or shrouded in uncertainty to the end, jocular or stern. Some may feel one clear call throughout their lives and others may experience evolution.
In rabbinic parlance, we are called by “shemot” (names) in our lives. Each person is “called” by three names, the Midrash teaches: that given by parents, that given by others, and that which one comes to earn; essence, relationship, and merit. One of our tasks is to hear, appreciate, and balance these callings. Yet perhaps the greatest mission of all is to choose to open our ears.
We’re all aware that there are many barriers to hearing and heeding our call: the inability to sit in silence or decipher competing interests, our reliance on serendipitous fate or the failure of courage to heed the seemingly insuperable call. Ultimately no one can help us face these challenges within the vicissitudes of our daily lives but ourselves.
We must have the courage to remember that our callings are primarily personal and individualized and not collective or perfunctory. The Jewish psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl suggested that one should not seek the meaning of life but the meaning of one’s own life.
Within a religious framework, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks perhaps said it best: “When G-d calls, He does not do so by way of universal imperatives. Instead, He whispers our name – and the greatest reply, the reply of Abraham, is simply hineni: ‘Here I am,’ ready to heed your call, to mend a fragment of Your all-too-broken world.”
Life is too short to follow someone else’s dream. Our lives have purpose when we follow our callings with zealous rigor and commitment. Are we prepared to reply hineni?
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.