Why Weren’t You, You?

Martin Buber

Martin Buber, the eminent Jewish theologian and existentialist, teaches that many people spend most of their lives trying to be someone else, when God made them to be themselves.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with admiring and imitating the positive traits and accomplishments of others, as long as a person remains true to himself or herself. As Buber writes in the Tales of the Hasidism,

“A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, ‘Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?’ But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?'”

In other words, in the Hasidic tale of the judgment, God asks Zusya, in effect, “Why weren’t you, you?” There is a great deal of theological truth in Buber’s story, for God makes each person to be himself or herself. The Creator, then, delights in diversity, making each person, every individual, different from every other person who has ever been and will ever be born.

Similarly, Viktor Frankl, the eminent Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, says,

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

That is to say, the life-task, the mission, of each person is to be himself or herself, not someone else.

Therefore, be yourself! Then, when you appear before God, he will not ask, “Why weren’t you, you?” Rather, he will already know that you were striving to be your own person, the best version of yourself, the best at being you. In doing that, you will have become the person God made you to be.


Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 113.

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