The other morning I was watching the news (a daily mistake) and was overwhelmed by how small I felt. Hurricane Harvey had just ravaged Houston, and Irma was on the footsteps of Florida. There were the social and political issues facing the U.S being reported on in partisan and angry tones; and then I saw a horrific report about a minority people, the Rohingyas, being forcibly expelled from Myanmar, or facing death – hundreds of thousands of them.
As I watched, I had a momentary stream of consciousness that went something like this: I thought about the billions of people on this earth. I thought about the millions suffering either because of natural disasters or political and religious persecutions. I thought about how, each of us, because of human nature, often look at others as “other.” How we look at our neighbors with suspicion when they don’t look or believe like “us.” We disregard them as people even though they also laugh, love and hurt. Those thoughts led me to think of the Holocaust, and the tragic risk that those who perished may become faceless and nameless because it can be impossible to fathom six million individuals.
And then I thought about a book that Hillel parent, David Victor, gave to the school. This book sets out to crystalize the enormity of the number, six million. It is a very thick book; it sits on the bookshelf by the fireplace in the mercaz. In meticulous columns, the word “Jew” appears six million times to represent each individual who was murdered in the Holocaust. Come look at it. It may justly overwhelm you, as it did me.
All this ran through my mind in a matter of moments, leaving me feeling insignificant, no more than a speck on this enormous, and all too often, seemingly heartless planet.
I am powerless to change the human condition. Many of today’s struggles and tragedies are beyond my grasp. Why bother to do anything? Nothing I do can help or make a difference. Perhaps it is this sense of insignificance and smallness that keeps people from doing.
And then my heart turned to the wisdom of our Jewish tradition. Our people are taught that each of us is a living miracle; that God created us on our birthdays at the precise moment the world needed us. And that if we save one life, it is akin to saving the entire world.
Hasidic folklore relates that Reb Simha Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam —“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” While the latter reminds us of our mortality, the former brings awareness that each human being is of the utmost importance.
We cannot literally change the entire world, or end all suffering on the macro level. It’s hubris to even think so. We can, however, save the world, one individual at a time. We can muster the inner strength to see each person as a sacred individual; extend a helping hand; say a compassionate word; perform an act of Gemilut Hasadim, or give tzedakah. We can save the entire world by giving hope and help to one person at a time. We are simultaneously a speck in the universe AND a sacred soul of the utmost importance; a living miracle in for which the world was created.
Each of us counts. Each of us is not alone in this world. Each of us can make a difference. My prayer and hope in this coming year of 5778 is that we all see ourselves as being of utmost importance in the world — along with every other person, one individual at a time.