This sounds nice. But as with any idea, one has to be aware that there are several possibilities:
- it might be self-evident, so obviously true that it doesn't need to be proven;
- it might be an idea that we find in Chazal and which has been recognized for milennia;
- it might be found only in the recent baalei hashkafa;
- it might be New Age Judaism, something to inscribe on your moebius energy bracelet;
- or it might just be wishful thinking.
So, what do you think? Let me clarify that. I'm not interested in your opinion. I want authoritative sources.
Here's what turned up. There is no order to the sources. I listed them either as I thought of them or as they were sent in.
1. The Gaon in his new edition of his pirush on Mishlei, 16:4. The Gaon says that some nevi'im, like Shmuel, were called "Haro'eh", the seer, because people would come to them and ask them for what specific job they were created לפי שורש נשמתו ולפי טבע גופו, in consonance with the root of their soul and their physical nature. He also says that when nevua'h ended, this information would be imparted with Ruach Hakodesh. However, the Gaon says that with the passage of time, our ability to hear what Ruach Hakodesh is telling us has become extremely attenuated. It is highly unlikely that any of us can know what our true tafkid is. Therefore, every person should do whatever mitzvos come to hand.
2. Tiferes Yisrael in Avos 4:3 on the Mishna of
Please note that the Netziv is NOT saying that people were born with specific tasks, just that we were born with unique talents and predilections, and that one should work within that framework in order to succeed. The Netziv is using the concept of “chanoch l’naar ahl pi darko” for choosing a direction in life.
4. The Satmerer in Vayo’eil Moshe in the beginning of Parshas Nasso says that a person that enjoys a particular mitzvah, and always looks for and finds opportunities to do it, was born for that mitzva. He uses this to explain why Kehas and not the bechor, Gershon, was given the task of carrying the Aron.
5. Rav Kook: (echoing the Tiferes Yisrael)
....I was created because the time came for me to fill some need for the perfection of the real world. If I were to dedicate my efforts toward fulfilling the purpose of my creation, I would be considered "worthy." ....
פרי צדיק ח"ד עמ' 6
Every Jew has a time and place when he is the only one that can do a necessary task.... this is because every Jew has his own portion in the Torah, he is represented by one of the 600,000 "letters" in the Torah, and without him, the Sefer Torah is passul.
7. The Sfas Emes in Parshas Korach 5647, (sent in by Chaim B.) quotes his grandfather as having said exactly this idea in the Mishna of Im ein ani li mi li. See it at the marvelous hebrewbooks.org here
In the mishna (in Avos) "any dispute that is motivated by a desire to do Hashem's work will have a positive result, such as the disputes between Shamai and Hillel, but if the disputants are motivated by self-interest, it will end badly, such as the dispute of Korach etc. ..... Certainly, there is a place for the inevitable differences of opinion among G-d fearing Jews.... As my grandfather said regarding the Mishna "If I am not for myself, who will be for me," that every man was created to correct one specific problem that nobody else can correct, and every moment presents its own particular task. Still, if I focus only on my personal purpose, what am I? Because every person needs to subordinate his own share to the community.
8. Rav Rudderman used to say this pshat in the davening of the Yamim Nora'im. מעשה איש ופקודתו, Ma'asei Ish Ufekodaso, he said, meant that Hashem compares what each man has done, מעשה איש, and פקודתו, his Pekidah, his tafkid. Unfortunately, for most of us, there is a vast gulf between what we could have and should have done and what we do.
9. Reb Yosef Ber Soloveichik (quoted by Rabbi Shachter) used to say that (Kiddushin 31b and Yerushalim Pei'ah 1:1) someone said that Reb Tarfon used to do tremendous Kibbud Eim, and the other Tannaim said "Ha! He hasn't even come close to fulfilling the mitzvah!" It seems that they are denigrating his great sacrifices and efforts. Rav Yosef Ber explained that when a person fulfills his purpose, Hashem takes him to Gan Eden. The Tannaim were saying that he has not even a little done what he is capable of doing, so there is good reason for Hashem to let him stay in this world.
So, we have great geonim who do say this idea, and even read it into two mishnayos in Avos, though more in the way of drash than pshat in the Mishna. The Shiurei Daas probably says something about this too. According to great unknown, everything I ought to know and don't know is in the Shiurei Daas. Or maybe its "I ought to know everything in the Shiurei Daas, and I don't." But I do know there's no such Gemara, and I would be thrilled to find out that it's in some Medrash or Rishon.
Micha and Chaim B brought up very nice points, as follows.
Micha: Given that we are all made unique and Hashem intervenes to give each of us what He feels is appropriate (Hashgacha Pratis for all people), and given that Hakadosh Baruch Hu isn't arbitrary, one is compelled to believe He has a unique purpose for each of us.
Chaim B: When people talk about gilgulim, they either say that they're going around because they need to correct an error they committed in a previous life, or because they didn't do what they were sent to do. If a soul has a specific mission, then it makes sense that it has to keep coming back until its job is done.
After all was said and done, I added the following:
From the forensic perspective, I would say that both ideas, universal Hashgacha and gilgulim, plus the absence of earlier sources, point to the Ari zal. I have a feeling we'll eventually find a reference to the idea in his writings or in the Ramchal. As Alexandre Dumas might say, Cherchez le Arizal.
So now that we've determined that is an idea with strong support among our gedolim, we should take it seriously. How do we use the idea in our daily lives?
First, as the Gaon pointed out, you have to realize that nobody can know with certainty what his tafkid is. It's not like we get marching orders from the famalia shel ma'ala. We're left to try to figure out what we ought to be doing, based on hints and intuition and so on. I guess this process is part of learning to know yourself, which is valuable in itself. So it's worth spending some time assessing our abilities and circumstances, and pondering what role we might effectively play in Hashem's plan.
Speculatively, one might say that finding your life's work is like finding your life's mate. The Gemara in Sotah 2a says that forty days before a child is formed, a voice comes from Heaven and proclaims the appropriate shidduch for that child. All things being equal, (and despite the Gemara in Moed Kattan 18b about Shema yekadmenu and the Meiri about what zivug sheini means and Ibn Kreskas about hashgacha and hishtadlus,) we believe that the person one marries is the person that was designated for him. Perhaps the same can be said of the Tafkid: we are obligated to do our best to discover what we were meant to do, and all things being equal, what we focus on is what we were meant to do. And perhaps it might not be us that does our assignment, but rather a descendant who carries something of us within them.
Second, the idea that each person is created with a tafkid is a consolation to people who are not gifted with natural talents, or who are handicapped; it doesn't matter. Every person with a spark of self-awareness is created with the opportunity to do something important, we all contribute in some way to the betterment of the world and to the fulfillment of Hashem's plan. Our only obligation is to play the hand we're dealt as best we can. No person's achievements can be judged by comparison to others'. As the Gemara (Erchin 11b) says, Meshorer sheshi'eir bemissa: a Levi whose job it is to guard the doors is not expected to sing, and if he attempts it, it is a mortal sin. If you're a meshoreir, then sing! If you're a sho'eir, then guard!
Third, if you're convinced that you are uniquely qualified to do a certain job, and someone tries to take it away from you, don't just quietly walk away. Fight for your destiny! To silently abdicate your crown you were born to wear is not only shameful, it is a denial of the significance of your entire existence.
From the Lubavitcher, briefly:
Sein chelkeinu be'sorasecha (Avos 5:20) means that each person has an insight to Torah that nobody else can reveal, as we see that Moshe Rabbeinu didn't know the things that Reb Akiva taught (Menachos 29a.)
We find that certain Tana'im took particular care to do certain mizvos, in a sense specializing in fulfilling that mitzva as perfectly and fully as possible. This is because each person has his own unique connection to the Torah and the Mitzvos.
When a person sees that his attempts to do a certain mitzva always are unusually difficult, he should realize that those are the mitzvos he was born to do, and the Yetzer Hara is being moser nefesh to stop him. (This, by the way, is something the Chasidim often say; I also saw it in the Slonimer's sefer. The Netziv, on the other hand, says that the way to know what you were born to do is to think about what comes most easily to you. This sounds like a diametric contradiction, but it's not. They're both talking about things that you are drawn to do but find difficult to achieve.)
A new citation: The Chasam Sofer quotes the Rambam as having said a very similar thing in a letter to his son. The Chasam Sofer quotes this Rambam three times that I know of; in his drashos in Parshas Ki Savo, in his introduction to his teshuvos in Yoreh Deiah, and in his pirush on Maseches Gittin. But I haven't found the Rambam inside yet, despite all the databases I have. In any case, Rabbi Klein cites it in his Mishna Halachos vol 13 #210 as follows: