I was deeply moved this past weekend by the final words that were shared between President George H.W. Bush, and his long-time dear friend, former Secretary of State, James Baker III. On the final morning of his life, President Bush asked James Baker:
“Where we going Bake?”
“We are going to heaven,” Baker said.
“Good. That’s where I want to go,” Bush replied.
In that moment I imagined the serenity President Bush must have felt, not only believing he was about to be reunited with his beloved high school sweetheart and life partner, Barbara Bush, but also his daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of 3. In addition, I imagined the peace he must have felt knowing that he lived a life that mattered, a life dedicated to the service of others, a life that made a tremendous difference on the world stage. President Bush once said that there is no definition of success that does not include service to others. He was a great American, and a great man.
Most of us will never have the opportunity to make the grand impact on the world stage that President Bush did. But greatness and service to others do not require most often a global or national reach. Just a few weeks ago I wrote about the eulogy resume, and this week we saw it played out by how President Bush is being remembered.
Each of us has the opportunity to also live a life that matters – a life built on “small greatness” that makes a difference. We, too, can, God willing, many years from now, lie on our death bed in peace, knowing we made a difference, and that our lives mattered to those around us and beyond.
Our Jewish tradition, in its wisdom, provides us with the roadmap, and it doesn’t include having to become a national or global figure. Imagine how the world would be impacted if each one of us slowed down, and became more self-aware of how our words, or our silence, affect those around us. Imagine if each one of us chose to give tzedakah to organizations that make a difference both within the Jewish community and outside of our community. There is so much need and, like the small voices that collectively make a difference, so can small contributions!
Imagine if more parents recognized that how we raise our children has an impact on the next generation! In the U.S. today, adults have become more self-centered, materialistic, less forgiving, and less likely to contribute time and money to the community. If we want our children to live in a better world, we need to reflect on our own behaviors, words and actions, and, we actually have to teach our children to take responsibility for themselves, and extend themselves to others. Imagine if each one of us did just that. Collectively we could all have a tremendous, positive impact on our neighborhoods, communities, and the world. Each act of small greatness adds up. The values of Derech Eretz, Gemilut Chasadim, Tzedakah, and Kedushah provide us with the tools and the framing for how we should see one another, and help us to hear the call to respond, as the shofar stirs us in the days leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is what we teach every day at Hillel, and best received when modeled at home as well.
Whenever I hear stories of our students making good choices, and stepping up for others, I know it is possible. Our chanukyiot that we are lighting this week represent light, hope, and determination; so, too, do our children, every time they live our values, revealing the sparks that lie within their souls. Here are two examples:
Earlier this year, in the fifth grade, a group of children took to texting each other, saying unkind things about a few classmates. One of their classmates who was in the group text reminded everyone of the values they were learning in Tanach, and that they should not be acting this way. One righteous fifth grade voice shut down the entire conversation. He made a difference!
Two of our seventh graders were working the sound and light board at the second grade Torah Party last week. During the program, an autistic child walked over to them. Because of his autism, he does not read social cues correctly. These two boys had three choices before them. They could ignore the child, snicker and maybe tease the child, as some children that age do, or engage him. These two boys saw no choice. They did what they were raised to do – they showed kindness, and included him in the action. They made him feel that he belonged. I would have never even known about this, except the mother of the autistic child was so moved by how these two seventh graders treated her son that she wrote a letter to Melissa Michaelson, our principal, to let her know.
The actions of the fifth grader and two seventh graders are examples of small greatness. The students come from homes where they are held accountable for their behavior, and they see their parents give beyond themselves. Imagine if we all did this on a regular basis.
We may never have the opportunity to have the great impact President Bush did, but a life of small righteous acts – small greatness – can combine with everyone else’s to transform each individual ripple into a powerful wave of positive change.
Rest in peace, #41.