All comparisons to others are completely irrelevant, as they have a completely different mission
I have written numerous times about the Mishnah's metaphor for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah: We each pass before HaKadosh Baruch Hu kivnei maron. My great teacher, Rav Moshe Shapira ztz"l, always emphasized the solitude in which that confrontation takes place, which is the common element of all three explanations given by the Gemara for kivnei maron. The questions addressed to us — Who are you? What is your unique mission? How are you performing that mission? — can only be answered with respect to ourselves. All comparisons to others are completely irrelevant, as they have a completely different mission.
Every time I wrote such a column, I would receive an angry response from a friend of mine, a talmid chacham, accompanied by a plentiful citation of Torah sources. First, he pointed out, I wrongly implied that the forthcoming judgment is one on individuals alone and ignored that there is also a collective judgment. As the Rambam writes, just as there is a judgment on an individual according to his cheshbon of mitzvos and aveiros, so is there a cheshbon on nations according to the accumulated mitzvos and aveiros.
Second, he found my focus on the individual alone before G-d to be myopically egoistic: "my essence, my uniqueness, my individuality." Even in the mashalim the Gemara gives of bnei maron, he noted, all include the individual passing single-file within a larger social context. The sheep being counted one-by-one are for the purpose of selecting the tenth as maaser, which in turn frees the rest of the flock. The travelers passing on a narrow mountain path, one by one, are nevertheless going to a common destination. And while every soldier in David's army might have been counted single-file as they went out to battle, they shared a common purpose to triumph.
The point I believe Rav Shapira to have been emphasizing was the necessity for self-knowledge and self-definition in the preparation for Rosh Hashanah: We cannot define ourselves in terms of anyone else. Not only are "all comparisons invidious," as my father a"h used to say, they are completely beside the point. Thinking about what our unique mission might be is critical, because that mission will implicate our judgment to a very large degree — i.e., whether we have done enough in the past year toward fulfillment of that mission to justify an extension of time to complete it. As we say in Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah, each person is judged according to his "maasav u'fkudosav" — his deeds and his mission.
And Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz always used to bring a proof from Navat the Carmelite, whose terrible end the Midrash attributes to his failure to come one year to Yerushalayim for the festival, thereby denying all the pilgrims the uplift that his beautiful voice brought, that fulfillment of one's unique tafkid may be the most important determinant of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah.
BUT AN EMPHASIS on our individuality is not an invitation to solipsism. And that is the point I should have emphasized more: Individuality cannot be separated from social context. I was first exposed to the concept of individuality in my senior year in college in a course on the history of autobiography. One of the questions my professor constantly posed to the different autobiographies, to determine whether we yet find a full-blown sense of individuality, was: Does the author convey a sense that had he been born 25 years earlier or 25 years later, he would have been someone very different? Without that sensitivity, there is not yet a fully developed vision of individuality.
The belief in our individual mission, which is so central to a Torah perspective on individuality, is always expressed as a mission within some larger social context and with respect to a particular end. Rav Reuven Leuchter, as quoted in Nurture Their Nature, brings a proof that each individual must serve the klal from a mishnah in Avos: "What is the correct path that person should choose? The one that is harmonious for him and harmonious for others." The trick is to find that path, within the framework of Torah, that comes naturally and comfortably to a person, and, at the same time, brings benefit to others (emphasis added). Here, by "comfortably," we mean "aligned with one's particular gifts."
At no time is the interaction between an individual's unique nature and circumstances and his mission clearer than on Rosh Hashanah. The task of the day is to crown Hashem as melech. But there is no melech without an am, a nation. An am is not individual, nor even a large group of individuals. An am is defined by a commonality of beliefs and purposes.
Anything that strengthens and unifies the Jewish nation increases our ability to crown Hashem as King. Each of us by virtue of our different kochos hanefesh and circumstances will be better suited to contribute to the am in a particular way. That's where our individuality comes in. But whatever our contribution, it is the opposite of self-regard. Rather, it takes place within the current context of the Jewish nation.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz"l begins his collection of maamarim on Rosh Hashanah with a series of essays on chesed. The middah of chesed connects us back to the creation of man — tehillas maasecha. Creation only came into existence so that Hashem could bestow His goodness on another, the Ramchal explains. That is the meaning of "Olam chesed yibaneh — the world is founded on chesed" (Tehillim 89:3).
Just as chesed is the foundation upon which the world exists, writes Rav Hutner, so is it the fundamental middah, the one that must serve as the basis for all others, because it is the clearest expression of our tzelem Elokim. Just as Hashem's bringing the world into being was an expression of chesed, of the desire to give to another, so too our emulation of Hashem begins with chesed.
What is our role in contributing to the whole system of interrelatedness that Hashem set into motion? How can we benefit our fellow beings? In what way can we reveal Hashem, the Source of chesed to the world, through our emulation of Him? These are the questions that follow from thinking seriously about our unique selves.
Chesed requires a dyadic relationship, and so our individual mission must somehow connect us to others, as members of Klal Yisrael and through Klal Yisrael to the entire world. When an eight-day-old infant boy is entered into the covenant of Avraham, in addition to the brachah on the milah itself, we recite a second brachah: l'hachniso bivriso shel Avraham Avinu. That blessing requires a specific intent that the infant boy join a larger collective through the covenant of Avraham.
And that covenant is, in turn, a covenant of chesed. Just as Avraham Avinu, who exemplified the middah of chesed, was able to discover Hashem mei'atzmo, from within himself, so too must we develop that particular middah both to connect ourselves to Hashem and to reveal Him to the world. All those who lack the middah of chesed call into question their descent from the pillar of chesed, Avraham Avinu.
The mission of each Jew will vary according to his talents, the nature of those dependent upon him, and the circumstances in which he finds himself. But that mission must always be discovered within the context of Klal Yisrael, as part of our collective task of crowning Hashem as King and bringing recognition of Him to the world. Far from being a reflection of excess self-involvement, contemplating our unique role in that drama is its antithesis, because it is always in the context of the entire world.
Long after the passing of the Alter of Kelm, a yellowing page with his message for Rosh Hashanah hung every Elul in the Talmud Torah of Kelm:
"All the Rosh Hashanah prayers are designed to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven, and we, for our part, are called upon to crown Hashem as King of Kings. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable acts, as Moshe said in his parting blessing: 'There will be a King in Yeshurun when the leaders of the people gather together, with the Tribes of Israel as one' (Devarim 33:5)."