Our Religious Imposter Syndrome

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut

By Rabbi Daniel Yolkut

Parshat Shoftim

In establishing the authority of judges in halakha, the Torah uses an apparently unnecessary phrase:

“to the judge who shall be in those days.” (Devarim 17)

Somewhat incredulously, the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 25b) asks:
“Can it enter your mind that a person can go to a judge that is not alive in his days?”
The Talmud answers that the Torah is here empowering the judiciary in each generation, even if perhaps of lesser eminence than their predecessors, with the authority and obligation to fill their leadership role in the time they find themselves. Earlier, the Talmud illustrated this principle with the phrase “Yiftach in his generation is as Shmuel in his generation,” that notwithstanding the clear differences in stature between two Biblical leaders, both had identical roles to play in their respective eras.

On the surface, this concept is principally directed to the populace, who could understandably chafe at accepting a lesser light as a judge if they perceive them as not measuring up to past luminaries. At the same time, this can be read as a message to the leaders themselves. It is certainly easy for a leader to be painfully aware of their own shortcomings and of how overwhelming the abilities of others can be.

While humility is certainly a trait to be cultivated, when it spirals into a sense of a paralyzing lack of self-worth, leaders themselves need to be reminded that the very fact that God placed them in that time and place means that they have a mission to carry out and the inner abilities to rise to that occasion.

One doesn’t need to be a formal judge to struggle with “imposter syndrome”: a lack of belief in one’s ability to measure up to others’ perceptions, the persistent internal sense of being a fraud. On the surface, we actually give voice to such a self-assessment of worthlessness every Yom Kippur:

“God, before I was formed, I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed.”

On the surface, this is a devastating admission of human frailty. However, the great 20th-century thinker Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook (Siddur Olat Reiya’h) read this difficult text as a response and a challenge to our imposter syndrome. He interprets “before I was formed, I was unworthy” to mean that each and every one of us enters the stage of life at the exact moment when we are needed. Before we were formed, Rav Kook taught, there was no need for us. However, God sends us into His world at the exact moment when we are worthy — that our skills and talent and abilities and even our challenges are uniquely needed by the universe.

We may not be the great Jews of previous generations, but we are precisely the ones needed at this moment. It is our calling to live up to that potential once we have been created in the here and now. Hence, this admission of Yom Kippur is not an admission of failure, but is rather a statement of resolve to appreciate our calling for the future and not to squander our potential and mission “as if we had not been formed.”

The real challenge is not measuring ourselves by someone else’s yardstick, but accepting the role that God expects from us “in these days.”

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the rabbi of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.


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