Rabbi Sacks on a Responsible Life – Example

JInsider (March 2010)

There's an African-American, a Lutheran called Stephen Carter who tells a story in one of his books. It's a fascinating story and a perfect illustration of what it is to live the responsible life. I gather in the early 1960s, Washington was quite a racially segregated city. There were predominantly white neighbourhoods, predominantly black neighbourhoods, and he tells the story of how, as a young boy, he and his family moved into a white area of Washington where they were the first black family.

He says, "Our first morning in the neighbourhood, we sat on the front steps to see how people would welcome us. They didn't. They didn't even look at us. It was as if we were invisible. And I felt to myself, we should never have come here. We will never belong here. And while I was thinking those thoughts, a lady on the opposite side of the street, her arms laden with shopping, turned towards us and gave us some enormous smile and a wave. Then she disappeared into her house opposite where we were living. And then a few moments later, she came out with a tray laden with drinks and cookies, and came over to me and my brothers and sisters and said, 'How wonderful to have you here.' That moment changed my life. And it taught me that I could belong here."

That lady, he says, whose name was Sara Kestenbaum, and who died all too young was an Orthodox Jewish lady. He said, "Jews have a word for this kind of thing. They call it chesed, meaning kindness, especially to strangers, and especially when it's hard. That moment changed my life." Now, I didn't know the late Sara Kestenbaum. Although when I told this story in a synagogue in Washington, the people said to me, "Oh yes, of course, Sara Kestenbaum used to be a member here. We don't know that story, but yes, that's the kind of thing Sara used to do."

And that was when I thought of a remarkable teaching that you find in the Talmud, codified by Maimonides that says, "Act as if your next act could change the future of the world." And I thought to myself, "What a crazy idea. How can any of us change the future of the world? We are only one of 6 billion people on the face of this planet. We are a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the seashore, dust on the surface of infinity."

And then suddenly, reading that story from Stephen Carter told me, we say, nefesh olam ke'echad maleh. One life is like a universe. Change a life and you begin to change the universe. That young African-American boy is today Professor of Law at Yale University. And he is what he is, as he says, because of one small act of kindness by one lady called Sara Kestenbaum. Never, ever think that we can't change the world. We can, one day at a time, one life at a time, one act at a time. And that is the only way you change the world.