When I was about eight years old, my mother told me that while most men work to make a buck, she wanted me to work to make a difference. Over 30 years later I am still struggling with her counsel.
What does it mean to make a difference? When the pagan asked Hillel to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel told him: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your friend.”
What Hillel counseled was inaction. There was no charge to actually do anything. The passivity of inaction could not be said to “make a difference.” Hillel’s advice is that at the very least, “do no harm.” This could not be what my mother meant. Some 200 years after Hillel, Rabbi Akiva was asked to sum up the Torah and answered with the command to love one’s fellow as oneself. This is a charge of action.
How can one love another person as much as one loves oneself? Is it even possible? Perhaps not; but that doesn’t mean that I am free from trying to live up to the ideal. I think about this command all the time. I try to make it the question I ask myself when I am unsure how to act. I reverse the situation and ask myself how I would want the other person to act towards me. I think about this when it comes to anything from lifting the toilet seat to helping an elderly person.
It reins in my tongue when I am impatient or frustrated, and it guides my behavior with my wife and children. I am confronted with opportunities to love my fellow as I would myself, and I try to rise to the occasions and “become the change I want to see happen in the world.”
But still, I think these small acts fall far short of the charge to make a difference. My nightly rest is often disturbed by my mother’s words. (Insert “Freudian- Philip Roth-Jewish Mother-Neurosis” joke here.) I lie in bed plagued by existential angst and the meaninglessness of my life.
I realize that just as I am ignorant of the names of all of my great-grandparents, my progeny will be just as unaware of mine. And even if I accomplish something really great, are my descendants really going to care that I am their ancestor? Will it merit any more of a conversation piece than if my grandfather was a horse thief? In fact, the horse thief would most likely lend itself to the better story.
So where does this leave me? Where do I go from here? For me, I retreat into faith; both faith in God and God’s faith in me.
Genesis records God’s creation of the universe through acts of speech. God spoke and it came to be. While most of God’s creations end with the epilogue that God saw that it was good, on the creation of man there is no such observation. The classic commentators rush to point out the missing phrase and some posit that even God cannot know if man was good because it is up to man alone. It is man’s actions and deeds that will determine the outcome.
Yet, the pronouncement that man is good is not needed. It is superfluous compared to the earlier pronouncement God makes upon the creation of man.
The verse states: And God said “Let us make man in our image and form” (Genesis 1:26).
The creation of man in the image of God is the greatest testament to God’s faith in us and our capabilities. Thus, we do not need God to state that we are good, the very act of creating us in His image is all we need to know.
Man is the apex of creation. The Psalmist asks God “What is man that thou art mindful of him, Mortal man that you take note of him?” (8:5).
The Psalmist then answers his own question by stating “You have made him a little less than divine, and have adorned him in glory and majesty.”
Man has significance by his very nature. It is not man’s deeds that determine his value or worth. This is why societies that killed or abandoned children born with deformities were so evil. They were not just killing children, they were killing the divine in them and in themselves.
God’s creation of us as “a little less than divine” gives a meaning and substance to our lives as human beings. For us Jews though, there is an added significance. Judaism doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a Jew that lives in isolation. A Jew is never an island unto himself; he or she is always part of corporate Israel. This is why we all sit at a Passover Seder celebrating our liberation from Egypt three millennia ago, even if we never set foot in that land. This is also why we all mourn the destruction of the Temple, the subsequent exiles and persecutions.
This is why we all rejoice in our people’s victories and triumphs while sharing the pain when Jews anywhere are suffering. For me, my identity as a Jew is more important to me than my identity as an individual.
And while Judaism has always taught the world the value of the individual as a supreme idea, I feel that my own personal identity is so wrapped up in Jewish history and peoplehood that I have no real identity sans my Judaism. For me, being Jewish is the ultimate expression of my humanity.
If humans are born a little less then divine, then Jews, with whom God shares a special covenant, are His intimate friends. Often, the Bible depicts the special relationship between Israel and God as that of lovers and intimates. There is a bond that is shared based on a shared history and experience with God. We walked with God when we were “young, following Him in an unsown land.”
We continued our relationship, by building the Temple in Jerusalem, and remained true to Him, even upon foreign soil. We stayed true to him even through that “day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Zephaniah 1:15).
And still, through all that, we remembered Zion and returned to her, while God in turn restored Jerusalem to us.
So while I still toss and turn lying in bed, it is this thought that finally brings a peaceful sleep to my eyes: Being part of the Jewish people means that as long as there are Jews who still identify as such, I will never truly die. The difference I made in this world was to bring more of the divine into it.
While my body will rot and my children will forget me, “Netzah Yisrael lo yeshaker” (I Samuel 15:29), loosely translated: “The Jewish people are eternal.” The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.