I have a challenge for each one of us. While we may not be able to change some of the negative and mean-spirited tones that permeate our society, and while we may not be able to stop some of the negative and inappropriate messages of our pop culture that are all around us, we can make a difference within the walls of the Hillel community. You see, I am an optimist, and I believe that people have the capacity to be good and do good, in spite of all the evil in our world. And I believe that if we want our children to grow to be adults with a strong positive character infused with Jewish values, then we need to lead by example.
We already have a wonderful school community, and we can be even better! I believe that we can fully realize the mission of our school and bring our core Jewish values to life each and every day. And it takes each one of us. I know it is not easy, and I know there are many who don’t believe that people can even change and improve.
In fact, just recently, on one of my searches for quotes and themes to write about, I came across this quote by Benjamin Franklin that seems to prove the negative:
“Who is wise? He that learns from everyone. Who is powerful? He that governs his passions. Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.”
The first three questions and answers come from the Mishnah, with an assumption that such people can and do exist. The last one is, sadly, Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion of the human condition and our inclinations. (I was pretty impressed that Benjamin Franklin knew Mishnah!)
It may be that Mr. Franklin is right. He would not be the first to draw this conclusion. In fact, the state of humanity and the quality of life on earth have been questions that philosophers have pondered for centuries.
Gottfried Leibnitz, the 17th-18th century philosopher, said we live in the best of all possible worlds, while Voltaire, who wrote Candide, made fun of Leibnitz and came to the conclusion that we live in the worst of all possible worlds.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a rabbinic scholar and thinker, believes that, from a Jewish perspective, “we are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope.”
“As it is now, evil can be conquered, but we are not living in a Leibnitzian paradise, but in a world in which we have to accept a vast amount of evil,” he writes. Steinsaltz goes on to state that this is not usually understood as a Jewish idea, but he thinks that it is really a statement of what he would call “Jewish optimism.” He writes, “If a person sees the world as all pink and glowing, he is not an optimist, he’s just a plain fool. An optimist, on the other hand, is one who, in spite of seeing the terrible facts as they are, believes that there can be improvement.”
If everything were all right, then you wouldn’t have to be an optimist. So Steinsaltz does believe that we, as Jews, are optimists because we are a people with hope and we have a theology of hope.
And this theology of hope and sense of optimism is what we must bring to our homes, school and community. I remember a quote that goes, “if everyone would clean their own front stoops, the world would be a very clean place.”
My challenge is to begin at home and for us, at Hillel. No matter how we look at ourselves and our children, there is always room for character improvement.
The idea is as simple as it is profound. We change our school community, the larger community and ultimately the world, one person at a time, by attending to our character and our responsibility, not only to self, but to others as well. Indeed, this is a central component of Hillel’s mission – “To inspire a passion for learning, responsibility to self and community”. As important as it is for us, the adults, to accept responsibility for our own actions, it is equally important that we teach our children the same.
As we enter Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, we are truly obligated to reflect on our character and to learn from our shortcomings, with the hope of improving who we are in the next year. What time could be better than now to make this commitment, as individuals and as a community, to create, at least at Hillel, the “best of all possible worlds?!”