Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Last week, citizens of the UK voted to leave the European Union. Brexit has been all over the news. Maybe you’ve seen the video of this guy, who is upset over the outcome even though he voted to leave. You see, he thought his vote wouldn’t make a difference. Anecdotally, there seem to be quite of few UK citizens like him, though anecdotes aren’t data, so we can’t tell from Facebook or other media if they make up a significant percentage of voters.
This view of ourselves as ineffective and insignificant is not new. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” That comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, and was written millennia ago. In this week’s Torah portion (Parshat Shlah) Moses, the great Israelite prophet and leader, sends scouts into the Promised Land to see if it’s a good place to live, and if it can be conquered. Out of 12 scouts, two say the land can be conquered, while 10 return to say that it is a wonderful place, but the people living there are very intimidating. Looking at the people who live in the land, these 10 scouts felt as small and weak as grasshoppers. And because they feel that way, they assume that the people they saw looked at them in that way too.
How often do we make assumptions about our impact on others or what they are thinking about us? How often do we assume that our choices don’t make a difference?
There are times when we are insignificant. Our lives in the context of geological time on earth are not even a blip. Compared to the vastness of the universe, or the mysteries of life, death, and God, we are barely there. At the same time, we can and do affect the lives of others with the choices we make, and that matters. Our votes matter, even if it’s hard to see it. Our attitudes on social media—where we put our support, whether we choose to troll or help—matter. Our behavior when we encounter others on the street, in the grocery store, or wherever we may be, matters.
The 10 Israelite scouts thought they were insignificant, but they were not. The influence of their despair on the rest of the Israelites, who believed them, meant that an entire generation, the generation that left Egypt in the Exodus, died in the desert during 40 years of wandering instead of entering the Promised Land.
A Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa, taught that a person should keep two pieces of paper in their pocket at all times. One says, “I am but dust and ashes,” and the other says, “The whole world was created for me.” The point is that sometimes we feel powerful and important, and then we need to reminded that we are made from the earth, the dust. When we feel that we have no impact, we need to be reminded that the whole world was created for each of us.
As we in the USA go forward in this important election season, may we recognize our significance, and may we have the wisdom to know which message to pull from our pocket as we make our decisions.
Image by Rlevente
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.