For most of my life, I assumed that everybody wanted to be like somebody else. There were people, called role models, whom we were directed to emulate. How often have older siblings heard the charge, “Behave! You’re a role model for your little brother and sister!” How many adults have purchased sports jerseys for their children hoping that the athlete in the original shirt might inspire their kids? And, unfortunately, more than a few of us may have heard, “Why can’t you be like [fill in the blank]?”, from a teacher or parent.
It never occurred to me that the idea of a role model was anything other than good and even constructive. Until I started reading Martin Buber’s collection of essays called, The Way of Man. He shares this short tale: Rabbi Bunam (1765–1827), a beloved Hasidic master, once said, “I would never want to trade places with Abraham! What good would it do God if Abraham became like Bunam and Bunam became like Abraham? Rather than have this happen, I think I will try to be a little more myself.” Buber then writes ” … Here we have a doctrine based on the fact that humans, by their nature, are diverse and differ one from another. Accordingly it teaches that people must not be regarded as alike. Every person has access to God but for each individual the way is different. It is precisely the diversity of human beings and in the diversity of their natures and individual inclinations that we find the great potential for the human species…. Many years ago, when several students of a deceased rabbi came to study with the Seer of Lublin, a great rabbi and teacher, they were surprised to see that his customs differed from those of their former teacher. The Seer exclaimed, “What sort of God would have only one way in which to be served!”” And then he writes, “One can go wrong only by paying attention to how far another has come and then attempting to imitate the other.”
What a liberating notion Buber reveals to us here. Trying to be like someone actually defeats the primary purpose of our lives, which is to self-actualize into the mensch that we are. When we attempt to walk in someone else’s footsteps, we leave no imprint of our own.
Sometimes in jazz, a young musician will try to replicate a great master’s sound, down to the nuances of every solo. Every note, every breath, every syncopated beat is captured. But while copying the sounds of a master is a technical feat, it certainly is not the young person’s solo. It is not until that budding musician steps up and creates their own distinct sound that we can see their real virtuosity.
We don’t need role models, that is, people to emulate. We need good teachers, people who can give us tools with which to shape our own creations. It’s not a professional athlete’s job to be a role model. Their job is to win games. Period. Kids into sports can learn how pros do what they do without investing in their personal habits or gestures. I can study great writers without wanting to dress how they dress or go to school where they went to school.
Humans are as different as snowflakes. We not only have our own unique fingerprints and DNA. We also have each of us our own soul. Each of us has our own path, our own way. It’s true that it’s much easier to be like someone else; it keeps us from being too vulnerable. But there is no one else to be like, because there is no one else like you. Telling someone to be a role model is a losing game. Challenge someone, and challenge yourself! to be a great teacher. And the first step to being a great teacher is to teach from your own truth, your own path. As Rabbi Bunam said, “Try to become a little more yourself.”