Sinai Indaba Lecture
To Heal a Fractured World
Sinai Indaba is an annual Torah convention of the foremost international Jewish leaders and thinkers. Rabbi Sacks was invited to attend, and to give a keynote address on the topic of tikkun olam, in the summer of 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Friends. I want to begin this talk about to ‘To Heal A Fractured World’. I want to talk about one simple idea, but an extraordinary idea. It is an idea that is the driving force of Judaism. Quite the most extraordinary idea I think that we ever gave the world, that the world ever stumbled upon. But I want to begin in a strange place. Here it is.
Here is a line at the beginning of parshat Ki Tissa [Exodus 30], and I want you to listen to its strangeness. It says, “ki tissa et-rosh Bnei Yisrael lifkudayhem” – when you count Jews – “venatnu ish koffer nafsho leHashem bifkod ottam” – then each of you must give a ransom, give a half a shekel as a ransom for your life to Hashem when you count them – “ki tvelo-yihiyeh vahem neggef bifkod ottam” – so that no mishap befalls them when you count them. Apparently it is dangerous to count Jews.
We know that when David Hamelech [King David] conducted a census, Hashem [God] became angry and many people died. To this day we don’t count Jews. We take a passuk [a phrase] with 10 words, or my late father, who didn’t know passukim [Hebrew Torah phrases] used to count “not-one”, “not-two”, “not-three”.
I want to ask, why is it dangerous to count Jews? If you look among the meforshim [Jewish commentaries] you will see many, many explanations of this law. There are shivim panim laTorah – “every verse in the Torah has seventy faces”.
But I want to hazard a different explanation, which I think is a very poetic one. Why is it that countries normally take a census? Countries have always counted their populations? Why is it? The short answer is because of the standard assumption that there is strength in numbers. Military strength, economic strength, demographic strength. That is why it is dangerous to count Jews. Because if we ever believed for one moment that there is strength in numbers, then God forbid we would immediately give way, [foreign language] to despair. Because we are a very tiny people, indeed.
When I became chief rabbi in Britain, 22 years ago, back in 1991, somebody knowing that Elaine and I would spend a certain amount of time travelling around the world, gave us a directory of world Jewish communities. For every country, it listed some facts about the country, including the population of the country and the Jewish population of the country, and the 1991 entry under China read as follows, and this is absolutely true. China population, 1 billion; Jewish population, five. I said to Elaine, if there are five Jews in China, I guarantee you two things. Number one, there will be six shuls. Number two, somewhere, someone will be saying the Jews are running the country,
But we are, as I mentioned this morning, a very, very tiny people. One fifth of 1% of the population of the world. For every Jew today, there are almost 200 Christians and more than a 100 Muslims. We are very small. Not only is this true now, it always was. At the end of his life. Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses] turns to the people and says, “lo meru bachem [Deuteronomy 7:7].” Not because you were many did God love you and choose you. He chose you because you are the smallest of all peoples.
We never numbered many. And if ever we believed that there was strength in numbers, then when we counted Jews, we would give way, God forbid, to despair. How then do you estimate the strength of the Jewish people? It is extraordinary how beautiful the Torah answers that question. It says “venatnu” [and give]. When you want to know the strength of the Jewish people, don’t count them, ask Jews to give and then count the contributions. Because although our numbers may be small, our contributions are vast.
In every single field of human endeavour, in business, in finance, in industry, in medicine, in the sciences, in academic life, cinema, music, you name it. You go through every discipline in science, Einstein; in sociology, Durkheim; in anthropology, Levi Strauss; in philosophy, everyone from Spinosa to Vichtenstein to Isaiah Berlin; in psychoanalysis, everyone, except Jung. You had Freud, you had Adler, you had Miller, you name it. All the psychoanalysts were Jewish. Mind you, if you are not Jewish, who needs a psychoanalyst? In literature, Proust and Kafka and Agnon and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In music, Mahler, Schonberg. We gave the world everything. From Irving Berlin to Isaiah Berlin, we contributed. This tiny people has contributed to humanity out of all proportion to its size.
I was once having a conversation (I mentioned it this morning) with the atheist Richard Dawkins, and Richard said, “Go and impress, show me I’m wrong.” I said, “Richard, you hold that religion is only for the feeble-minded and the stupid, right?” You said “Yes, I think so.” I said, “Richard, and you also believe in following the evidence. You’ve always said, that’s your faith as a scientist.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, tell me, Richard, what do you do with the following fact: that Jews are a fifth of a percent of the population of the world, and they have won 20% of Nobel prizes in chemistry, 26% of Nobel prizes in physics, 27% in medicine and 41% of Nobel prizes in economics.” He stopped, and he thought, and he said, “You know what? Jews must be different.” So there you are. You’ve heard it from Richard Dawkins. It must be true.
I have to say that not only did Jews contribute out of all proportion to their numbers, but there’s something else they did which is absolutely unique. You know that Jews contributed above all in matters of the spirit. Every other religion had one single founding figure. In Judaism, there is no single founding figure. Who would we say? Avraham Avinu [Abraham], the avos, [our three forefathers], Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses], Aharon HaKohen [Aaron the High Priest], David Hamelech [King David], Isaiah, the prophet, you name it. Instead of being creative once we gave rise to an extraordinary and endless succession of prophets and poets and rabbis and sages and commentators and halachists and poets and philosophers. There was not one tragedy in the whole of Jewish history that did not bring forth new bursts of Jewish creativity!
After the destruction of the verse simple and the Babylonian exile came the renewal of Torah in the life of the people as exemplified by Ezra and Nehemiah. After the destruction of the Second Temple, under the Romans came forth the whole extraordinary, endless literature of the Oral Law, (Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara), and everything that went with it. After the crusades in the Middle Ages came the Chassidei Ashkenaz. After the Spanish Expulsion came that extraordinary group of mystics in Tsefad, many of them exiles from Spain, or children of exiles from Spain, who gave us Lecha Dodi and Yedid Nefesh [Hebrew songs], the most extraordinary love poetry since Shir HaShirim [The Song of Songs]. And after the Holocaust came the State of Israel. Not only did Jews give to the world, but every time the world makes Jews suffer, they come back and they give more. Why? Because to be a Jew is to know “[foreign language] “venatnu”. To be Jewish means that to live is to give.
There are two Seas in Israel, the Galilee, the Kinneret, and the Yam Hemelach, the Dead Sea. They are as unlike as it is possible for two seas to be. The Galilee is full of life, and the Dead Sea, as its name implies has no life at all. The weird thing is that they are fed by the same river, the River Jordan. What is the difference between these two seas? And the answer is that the Sea of Galilee receives water, but also gives out water at the other end, whereas the Dead Sea receives water, but does not give. Even the geography of the land of Israel illustrates what it is to be Jewish because to be Jewish means to receive and not to give is not life at all. That is why if you want to measure the strength of the Jewish people, ask them to give and then count the contributions.
Friends, I do not know how many Jews there are in South Africa. I know there are an awful lot of you here today, but I ask you to try an experiment. Anywhere in the world, ask a local at random in the street, how many Jews are there in this country? They will give you an answer that is at least 10 times as many as they actually are. I mean, the reason’s obvious. We make 10 times as much noise as anyone else. But the truth is that somehow Jewish strength has never, ever been a matter of numbers. It has been a matter of contribution. When people work out, how much Jews have contributed to a country, they assume the Jewish population must be vast.
Whereas, in fact, very often it’s quite small. Behind this lies one of the most extraordinary pieces of theology in world civilisation. And this is what I want to explain.
There was, as you know, the author of Communism, Karl Marx. Karl Marx said famously, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Karl Marx made an important insight. He said that the main function of religion throughout human civilisation has been to anaesthetise pain, to make people able to live with the suffering and the injustice of the world. Religion teaches people to accept all that suffering as the will of God. It takes cruelty, injustice, and tragedy, and robes the cruelties of fate with a cloak of inevitability. So it is in this world, because that is how God wills it. “Religion is the opium of the people,” thus said Karl Marx.
I wish I’d met Karl Marx. I would have said, “Karl, Reb Chaim, let’s have a lechaim [toast] together. Because, the truth is, you know just enough about Judaism. Even though your Zayde [grandfather] was a rabbi, you know just enough about Judaism to misunderstand it. What you don’t know is enough to understand it.”
The truth is, there is one person in Tanach who satisfies Karl Marx’s description. And he is not just an ordinary person. Let us be very blunt. He is an extraordinary person. The Torah describes him in the words “ish tzaddik,” a righteous man. This man was the only person in the whole of Tanach called “ish tzaddik.” We call many people in retrospect tzaddikim, but there is only one person in the whole of Tanach called “ish tzaddik.”
He is called “tamim haya bedorotav” – perfect, in his generation. He walked with God. Who was it? It was Noah.
And when Hashem is about to bring a flood on Earth and destroy all of humanity, except Noah and his family and the animals on the Ark, what does Noah do? He accepts it. He utters not one word of protest. He accepts it, exactly as Karl Marx thinks all religious people accept suffering.
And I have to tell you, it is precisely because Noah accepts that thing as a decree of God that he is deemed unfit to be the founder of Judaism, the father of the covenant. It is an extraordinary paradox. The Noah who had every other virtue merely because he accepted and did not argue against the Flood, this is not a Jew. A human being, yes, brit bnei Noach, but not a Jew.
Who does God choose? He chooses the man who gets up and says, “Challilah lecha meassot kadavar hazeh. [Genesis 18:25].” When God tells Abraham he’s about to destroy Sodom and Amorah, Abraham gets up and says, “God forbid that you should do such a thing.” Abraham stands up and challenges God. We do not accept suffering is inevitable. We challenge Hashem.
Moshe Rabbeinu. When God is about quite reasonably to punish the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe Rabbeinu says, “Forgive them” – “ve-im ayin machayni na missifrecha asher katavta” – “Forgive them, or else blot me out of this Book You have written.”
And that is why God chose Abraham and Moshe Rabbeinu. Because they don’t accept that religion is the opium of the people. Every other religion in history has been a religion of acceptance. Judaism alone is a religion of protest.
And I have to tell you that the most remarkable book in Tanach, in my humble opinion, the most remarkable by far in the whole religious literature of humankind is the book of Sefer Iyov, the Book of Job. In the Book of Job, Iyov [Job] challenges God. “Give me a reason for my suffering.”
And Job’s comforters say, “No, you have to accept. You suffer, because maybe you committed a sin. Maybe you didn’t realise it, but you committed a sin. Maybe you’re being punished. Or who knows? Maybe you’re not being punished. Maybe Hashem is making you suffer to make you more noble, a human being.”
Maybe this world is as the poet Keats said, “a vale of soul-making.” Maybe we become nobler through suffering. Or maybe it’s none of these things, but simply [kacha tzon Hashem]. “The will of God is inscrutable.”
So Job challenges God. And Job’s comforters defend God. And then comes the ending. The last chapter, the biggest volte-face in all of literature, it is Job, who challenges God, whom God deems to be righteous. Correct? And it is Job’s comforters, who defended God, whom God deems to be wrong. That is absolutely extraordinary.
And not only Job. The Talmud Bavli, early on in Messechet Brachot, deals with the issues of suffering. And it says about suffering, “keshe issurim be’im la’adam” – when sufferings come upon you – yefashfesh bema’assot” – examine your deeds. Because those sufferings may be punishment for a sin. And therefore examine your conscience and put right whatever you’ve done wrong. But if you found that you hadn’t committed a sin, then these are “issurim shel ahavah“. These are sufferings of love, sufferings to purify us in preparation for the World to Come. And that is what the Talmud says.
And then it tells stories of various rabbis who became ill. And according to the Talmud, they should have been either doing teshuvah [repentance] or rejoicing in the sufferings of love. And when they are visited, their visitors say, “Are your sufferings precious to you?” And one after the other, the rabbis reply, “Neither they, nor their reward.” And their visitors say, “Oh, in that case I’ll cure you.” So they get cured.
What can be cured is not precious. And all of this is implicit in the name of our people. “Yisrael [Israel]”. We are the people who never stop wrestling with God, and He never stops wrestling with us. We never stop wrestling with the world, and the world never stops wrestling with us. We don’t accept. When we see evil, we protest.
Now I want to explain, what is the theology here? There’s something very remarkable. And I’m going to put it very simply. The Midrash Rabbah says the following about Avraham Avinu [Abraham]. It says, “What was Abraham like?” Abraham was like somebody who is on a journey, and he sees a palace in flames, [foreign language]. And he says to himself, “Can it be that this palace has no owner?” After all, if somebody builds a palace, you put in a fire extinguisher. If a palace is on fire, somebody should be putting out the fire. And the owner of the palace shouts out to the visitor, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham saw the world and said, “Can it be that the world is without a ruler?”
Immediately, Hashem called out to him, “I am the ruler of the universe.” What does this say? It is saying that to be a Jew is to see the world as a palace. We said it this morning, precisely engineered for the emergence of life, a place of order, a place of design that had a designer, a place of beauty that had a creator. We see the powers, but we also see the flames, the suffering, the injustice in this world. Judaism is born in the cognitive dissonance between the world that is and the world that ought to be.
And that cognitive dissonance we do not attempt to resolve in our heads by some act of philosophy or theology or theodicy by saying, “Really the world that is, is the world that ought to be.” We don’t do that. We say, “No. There is a contradiction between the world that is and the world to be.” And the only way we can resolve that is by action. Every act we do to right one wrong in the world brings the world that ought… that is a little closer to the world that ought to be.
That is why in Judaism, Judaism is a religion of holy deed, not just holy thoughts. And that is the remarkable principle of Judaism, faith as protest against the sufferings of the world. And that is what Hashem is calling on us to do. “I had to make a world,” He says to us. That being a physical universe contained creation and destruction, genesis and decay, without stars that exploded, there would be no dust out of which emerged planets. Without death, there would be no new life. And without giving human beings freedom, there would be no evil that men do against one another, but there would be no good either.
So therefore Hashem says, “This is the world I had to make in order for you to have the dignity of freedom and to become holy the way I am holy.” But I have to call on you, (as Rabbi Goldstein said last night), to be my “shutafim bema’asseh bereshit“. You have to help me put out the flames. You have to help me be the partner.
That is why we find disproportionately, Jews, out of all proportion to their numbers, as doctors healing disease, as economists healing poverty, as teachers curing ignorance, as lawyers and judges fighting against injustice and as therapists fighting depression and despair. Because Judaism is a protest against the evil of this world and the whole of life is God’s call to responsibility to lessen some of the evils of this world.
Friends, I don’t know whether you saw it last summer. Did any of you watch the Olympics last summer? So you will see… I think you probably guessed, Jews didn’t invent the Olympics. It’s not our thing. I have to say, when I first became a chief rabbi, I said, “Why don’t we get the whole of Anglo Jewry to run a marathon together?” You imagine what happens when heathen sit down to form a committee, the run turned into a walk, 27 miles turned into three, so Jews didn’t create the Olympics. But, I don’t know if you saw this, after the Olympics there was something incredibly moving called the Paralympics. Did you see that? And shortly before the Paralympics, the BBC did a most beautiful, beautiful film about the founder of the Paralympics.
And some of you may have heard his story, but I’m going to remind you of it. It was about a man called Dr. Ludwig Guttman. Ludwig Guttman came from an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany. By 1933, he was Germany’s leading neurosurgeon. By the time Hitler comes to power, by 1935, no Jew is allowed in any of the professions and he’s thrown out. For a few years he is able to serve as a doctor in a Jewish hospital in Breslau, but in 1939, Ludwig Guttman has to come to Britain for safety. Britain recognises his extraordinary talents and eventually in 1944, he is invited to set up Britain’s first ever unit treating paraplegics.
What Ludwig Guttman saw horrified him. The paraplegics, mainly soldiers injured in war were regarded as having no future life ahead of them. They couldn’t walk, therefore they had no future. They were kept bedridden, highly sedated and their average life expectancy, and these were young men, was between three and six months. Ludwig Guttman said this cannot be. And he set about, painstakingly, bringing them back to life. And what he did was extraordinary and nobody understood it at the time. He realised that they were dying literally, because they were kept so heavily sedated, they couldn’t move. So he halved their painkillers and it hurt. And then he made them sit up in bed, and it hurt. And then he started throwing basketballs at them and he got them in an army trainer to throw balls at him, and it hurt. And his fellow doctors and nurses thought he was guilty of cruelty. They thought he was putting them through suffering and teaching them to have hope that didn’t exist.
And he was eventually summoned to a tribunal of his fellow doctors. One of the doctors turned to him and said, “Who do you think they are? These are moribund cripples. Who do you think they are?” And Guttman looks at his fellow doctor and says, “Who do I think they are? The best of men.”
And he takes them out of their hospital room into the garden and puts them in wheelchairs. And then he starts getting them to play ball games in wheelchairs. And then he gets the nurses and doctors to sit in wheelchairs and play games against the paraplegics. And who do you think wins? The paraplegics are much more comfortable in wheelchairs than the doctors. And when the paraplegics start beating the doctors and the nurses, all of a sudden they get excited. And he realises that these games are for them, a source of life and hope. And so he organises a competition between the paraplegics and other people in neighbouring hospitals. And then he organises a national competition. And then in 1948, the first international competition of paraplegics, the first parallel Olympics that 20 years later in 1968 are officially recognised as the Paralympics.
And when last summer 4,000, Paralympic athletes performed from 140 different countries in front of the cameras of the world, you all saw that this one man had given life and hope back to an entire section of the population of this world. What a hero this man was. And the BBC film showed quite clearly that he was an Orthodox Jew. They show him going back to his home, wearing a yarmulke, his wife is filling their Shabbas kettle, he’s saying “Shabbat Shalom” to his family, this was a Kiddush Hashem she’ain kamohu [a perfect way of sanctifying God’s name by behaving like an upright citizen, a good Jew]. But this was not an accident that Ludwig Guttman was brought up an Orthodox Jew, because to be a Jew means you do not accept the world. You challenge the world. You heal the suffering of the world. His whole life was dedicated to fighting against the assumption that if you’re a paraplegic, you have no life ahead of you, just accept it, that’s the will of Hashem.
I never met Ludwig Guttman, but I did meet Dr. David Baum. I mentioned a very great Jewish philosopher, ex-Jewish philosopher called Karl Marx. There were of course, some famous philosophers called Marx, who were even better philosophers, they were called the Marx Brothers. Did any of you ever see them? There was one called Harpo Marx, he never spoke, but had a shock of grey, wiry hair – that was David Baum. He looked exactly like Harpo Marx, full of mischief.
David Baum was Britain’s leading paediatrician. In his early years, he made a number of practical developments that had the effect of lowering infant mortality throughout the world. He then went on to organise for the first time, the Royal Society Of Paediatricians in Britain of whom he was the life president. At the Memorial service for him there was a nun, Sister Helen, who spoke so movingly about how David Baum had helped set up the first children’s hospice in Britain. She tells this wonderful story about how David invited her to his son’s barmitzvah and here she’s, a nun in a habit. She says, “David, what shall I wear?” David said, “Come in your habit. God will enjoy that.”
David Baum was a religious Jew. And because he was a religious Jew, he realised that having put child care on a proper basis in Brittany, couldn’t stop there. And so he went first to Thailand, then Ethiopia, then Brazil, and completely reorganised their childcare. And then he did so in Moscow, in the 1980s, with Mikhail Gorbachev who came all the way to Bristol where he lived, to receive an honorary doctorate from his hand. And in 1999, at the height of the Kosovo conflict, he was riding a bicycle on a sponsored bicycle ride, to raise money for the first children’s hospital in Pristina the capital of Kosovo, when he suffered the heart attack that killed him at the tragically young age of 59. Whenever I hear people criticise Israel, I tell them the story of David Baum.
David Baum was a religious Zionist. He instructed in his will that he should be buried in Rosh Pinah, the Galil, which he was. And I tell them what David Baum’s last completed project was, a state-of-the-art children’s hospital for Palestinian children in Gaza. He said, that’s the kind of Zionist I am. I want the very best for Jewish children in the state of Israel and I want the very best for Palestinian children likewise. That was the kind of tzaddik [righteous person] he was.
You may think Ludwig Guttman and David Baum were extraordinary people with extraordinary gifts, perhaps they were, I don’t know. But I want to tell you the story of the late Sue Burns. Sue Burns was the most handicapped person I ever met. She suffered from a debilitating disease, which I think is called osteosclerosis. It meant that all the bones in her body were degenerating. So Sue could not even sit up in bed. She had to live her life horizontal, bedridden. And the odd thing about Sue is that I never saw Sue without the most serene smile. She spent her whole life smiling. And the moment I will never forget was when I got a call saying that Sue wanted to see me.
And I went to see her and she had that same beautiful smile on her face and she told me, “Chief rabbi, I just wanted to let you know that I’m about to die.” Young woman, and she did within a couple of days. She never stopped smiling and I want you to know her story. What was it about this extraordinary woman? It was very simple. When she contracted this disease, she thought to herself, what does Hashem want from me that he is doing this to me?
And she worked out that obviously this is happening to me so that I can help other people who are suffering in this condition. And so, even though she was bedridden, and even though this was the 1980s before the internet and smartphones were easily available or even available at all, she had a computer and a phone line installed at her bedside, and she got to know every single severely handicapped person suffering from her kind of illness. And she was in touch with them all the time. And she was helping them through their difficulties, personal, medical, advising them and so on. And she called it the Tikvah helpline. She was there to give hope to everyone who had until then felt they were in a hopeless situation.
And when the Queen gave her an honour for her work, she was the only person ever taken into Buckingham Palace to receive a medal from Her Majesty, the Queen on a hospital bed. And when she came out of Buckingham Palace, typically with Sue, she said, “It wasn’t for me, it was all the fellow sufferers. And I only accepted it on their behalf.” Sue Burns understood what Kierkegaard meant when he said, “The door to happiness opens outward.” When we suffer, the best way of rising above our suffering is to help others who are suffering. Or if Sue sounds to you an extraordinary person, let me very simply tell you the story of Steven Carter.
Steven Carter, a young black boy who in the 1960s became the first … he and his family became the first black family to move into what had until then been an exclusively white neighbourhood in Washington. Many years later, he writes about the story of that time. He says, “I and my brothers and sisters sat that first morning on the front doorstep to see how people would greet us. They didn’t; they didn’t even look at us. It was as if we weren’t there. And I suddenly realised we should never have come here. We don’t belong here. There is no life for us here. And while I was thinking those thoughts, my eye was caught by a lady, the other side of the road, her arms laden with shopping. When she saw us, she gave us a big smile and then she disappeared into her house just opposite. Five minutes later, [she] came over with a big tray full of drinks and cookies, gave them to us, and said, ‘How wonderful to have you here. Welcome.'”
Steven said, “That moment changed my life. I suddenly knew that I did belong here, that I did have a place here.” Steven, who is now professor of law at Yale University, tells this story in his book Civility. He says, “It is probably no coincidence that that lady-her name was Sarah Kestenbaum, she died tragically young-was an Orthodox Jewish lady because Jews have a word for this kind of thing. They call it Chesed, which means kindness, especially to strangers, especially when it’s hard.
I happened to be telling that story in the young Israel shul in Georgetown in Washington without even thinking. The members of the shul came up to me afterwards and said, “Oh, did you know, Chief Rabbi, Sarah Kestenbaum was a member of this shul. We’d never heard that story before, but yes, that’s the kind of thing Sarah used to do. Friends, I have to tell you one act can change your life. One act can change your life.
One of the really difficult experiences I went through and maybe some of you went through it as well. We’re sitting shiva for my late father [Oliver Shalom]. My late father had not an easy life. He came to Britain as a refugee as a young kid from Poland. Had to leave school at the age of 14 to help the family by earning a living. Never had an education, not Jewish, not secular. He spent his whole life in a little shop selling shmatters [odds and ends and fabrics] in London’s East. [It] wasn’t an easy life for him. [He] never had any opportunity. When he died and I sat shiva, [rachamana le’etzlan] people, some of whom I hadn’t seen for fifty years, some of whom I didn’t recognise at all, would come up to me and tell me stories of kindness my father did, of favours, of help, of support.
I’m most sure anyone who ever sat shiva has had the same experience. When I was hearing all these stories, I was inwardly weeping, I was thinking to myself, “Why did you wait until now? Why didn’t you tell him that when he was still alive? If only he had known what he meant to you, maybe his life would have been a little easier.” And then I suddenly realised, that’s how life is. You never really know how much of an impact your acts have on others, but they do. The truth is the exact opposite of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony who said, “The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” The exact opposite is true. It is the good that we do that lives on after us. And it is the most significant thing that does.
Friends, the good we do changes lives the way Sarah Kesterbaum changed Stephen Carter’s life, the way we all can change a life by one act of kindness or help, or the kind word, or a simple invitation to one who is lonely, or a visit to alleviate the sufferings of someone who is sick, or lift the distress of somebody who is sitting shiva [rachamana le’etzlan] that changes lives. And I come back to the question with which I began, “Why did God make the Jewish people so small?” And the answer is because God wanted a people to know that every one of us counts, every one of us matters, every one of us can make a difference.
This I learned from David Baum, who changed so many lives, [he] went around telling this story, a famous story actually, [it] wasn’t his own. He picked it up from an American anthropologist called Lauren Isley, but he made it his story. He used to tell everyone this story, of an old man who’s walking along a beach one day. And he sees a young man surrounded by starfish that have been left stranded by the retreating tide. One by one, the young man is picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the sea. The old man looks at the young man and says, “What are you doing? Young man, look at them. You can’t save them all. And even if you were to save every single one of them on this beach, there are all the ones on the next beach and the next beach. You can’t make a difference.” The young man looks at the starfish in his hand, throws it into the sea, and says, “To that one, I made a difference.”
I have to tell you that I am very moved when Melinda Gates said, “To me, knowing I altered one person’s life for the better is the most important thing in my life.” We should all be Melinda Gates. Here is a woman who she and her husband bill have given away $43 billion to charity, but she still thinks and knows that the way we make a difference as David Baum made a difference is one life at a time, one day at a time, and one act at a time. Not by accident did Judaism teach [in Hebrew] “One life is like a universe.” Therefore, if you can change one life for the better you begin to change the universe.
The world has suffering within it. God says [that He] I want you to be the people who don’t accept that suffering, who go out and alleviate it, heal it, and make the world that is a little closer to the world that ought to be. That is our challenge, our life. The world is God’s question. And what we do with our lives is the answer.
Friends, this has been quite a solemn speech, so let me end with one of my favourite stories which just tells us that whatever situation we are in, we can solve somebody else’s problem if we try hard enough.
This story is set around 1947 when relations between the British and the Jewish population of Israel was not that great. I don’t think I exaggerate. They’re the pre-State days. And there’s a couple who made aliya [moved to Israel], Chaim and Chenya. They lived in a little moshav. Chaim who is running arms for the Haganah gets caught by the British and sent to prison in the British prison in ICO. One day he receives a letter from his wife Chenya. It says, “Hi, listen, it’s all very good for you to go and be a hero for the Jewish people. But in the meantime, I’m left alone with our farm. The time has come to plant potatoes. How am I supposed to plough the ground on my own? Tell me what am I supposed to do?”
Chaim sits down and writes Chenya a letter, “Dear Chenya, Whatever you do, don’t touch the ground. There are rifles buried underneath.” The letter is intercepted by the British military authorities. The next day, the entire farm is overrun by British soldiers. They dig up every square inch of ground. They do not find one single rifle. Disconsolate, they return to base. The next day, Chaim writes to Chenya, “Dear Chenya, now plant potatoes.”
Let’s plant potatoes, and heal the world.