Rosh Hashanah: ‘For my sake the world was created’

Each individual has the power and potential to change the world. Indeed, throughout Jewish history there were many individuals who literally changed the course of Jewish history.

 YOU – THE reason the world exists. (photo credit: Ben White/Unsplash)
YOU – THE reason the world exists.
(photo credit: Ben White/Unsplash)

As Rabbi Sidney Greenberg pointed out, the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah begins with the birth of one little boy, Isaac, who went on to become our second patriarch. Similarly, the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah deals with the birth of one little boy, Samuel, who went on to anoint the first two kings of the Jewish people: Saul and David.

Isn’t it strange that both readings should focus upon one little boy, precisely on Rosh Hashanah when we recite “on this day the world came into being”?

Actually, this is not so strange. Our sages chose these readings for Rosh Hashanah because they believed that every human is equal in value to the entire world.

As we have learned in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5): “Therefore, Adam was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys one life is considered by Scripture as if he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever sustains one life is considered by Scripture as if he had sustained the entire world… Therefore, every single person must say: for my sake the world was created.”

“Therefore, Adam was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys one life is considered by Scripture as if he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever sustains one life is considered by Scripture as if he had sustained the entire world… Therefore, every single person must say: for my sake the world was created.”

Sanhedrin 4:5

In other words, the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah teaches us: for the sake of Isaac the world was created. And the haftarah reading teaches us: for the sake of Samuel the world was created. And both readings teach us: for my sake the world was created

moses painting 521 (credit: freechristimages.org)moses painting 521 (credit: freechristimages.org)

THE LOGICAL result of this belief is that each individual has the power and potential to change the world. Indeed, throughout Jewish history there were many individuals who literally changed the course of Jewish history.

When have individuals changed history in Judaism?

Moshe rabbeinu was such a person. He came before Pharaoh and said: “Let my people go!” Objectively speaking, his demand was insane! Moses had no army and no weapons – he barely had a people behind him – and yet he appeared before Pharaoh, the greatest monarch of his day, and demanded: “Let my people go!” What unmitigated chutzpah! There was no reason for him to succeed and yet, succeed he did.

Let us jump to the year 70 CE. The Temple has just been destroyed and Jerusalem is in ruins. Many Jews were paralyzed by grief, but not Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. He realized that if the Jews were to survive, they needed to find alternatives. Instead of Jerusalem, they must develop Yavneh and other centers of Jewish learning. Instead of the Temple, they must build synagogues in every town. Instead of priests, they must train rabbis and teachers. Thus, one person brought about a revolution in Jewish life, which has molded our people until today.

We skip ahead once again to the year 1897. The Jewish people is in serious trouble. The Jews of Eastern Europe are impoverished and racked by tsarist oppression. The Jews of Western Europe are bent upon assimilation and intermarriage. There appears upon the scene one unknown, assimilated Jew named Theodor Herzl with a dream: Der Judenstaat – the Jewish state. 

In seven short years, he succeeds in doing the impossible. He founds the Zionist movement, chairs the Zionist congresses, publishes Die Welt, a Zionist newspaper, and helps found the first Zionist bank. More importantly, he galvanizes the Jews into a people once again, and convinces the sultan and the kaiser that there is a Jewish people, which deserves respect and a homeland.

AT THIS point, you are probably thinking: what does this have to do with me? I am not as charismatic as Moses or Herzl; I am not a scholar like Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. So how can I change the world? My reply is to quote an aphorism that was popular in the 1950s: “If you think you cannot do it, you’re absolutely right!” But once we have absorbed the basic message of the Mishnah – “for my sake the world was created” – we will realize that each and every one of us has the ability to change himself, his community and the world.

First of all, we have the ability to change ourselves. As we learn in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is a hero? He who conquers his own evil impulses.” Indeed, that is the purpose of the High Holy Days – to do teshuva and return to our better selves.

Furthermore, we also have the power to live up to our own potential, as portrayed in the classic hassidic story about Reb Zusya of Hanipol: “Before his death, he said: In the World to Come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ but rather: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” 

Secondly, we all have the ability to change our family and friends, and to influence even chance acquaintances. This is best illustrated by a story told by Rabbi Harvey Meirovich about Yosef Begun, who spent some 10 years in Soviet prisons for the “crime” of teaching Hebrew. 

On Purim day in 1977, Begun was arrested and locked up in a Moscow jail, awaiting trial. At age 44, he was clearly the oldest prisoner. Rumor had it that he was some kind of Christian religious fanatic. Since it was Easter time, several inmates requested that he tell them about Jesus. Begun replied that, while he had little knowledge of that topic, he was a student of the Torah and would happily tell them the Bible stories that he had just begun to study. 

For the next three days and nights, Begun related, with as much gusto as he could muster, the Genesis narratives. Unbeknown to Begun, a young man in his late teens had been capturing his words in pencil sketches. After three days, he shared with Begun the fruits of his labor. Begun was impressed by the talent of the young artist, named Boris, a Jew just beginning a three-year prison term for robbery. 

For the next few days, Begun told Boris about the struggles of the refusenik community to resurrect Jewish and Hebrew learning, and to fan the flame of hope that one day Soviet Jews would be free to embark on a new life in the State of Israel. 

In January 1988, Begun finally arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport to a hero’s welcome. As he walked through the crowd, he was pounced upon from behind by a bearded young man in an army uniform holding an Uzi sub-machine gun. 

The soldier exclaimed: “I am Boris from the prison in Moscow! I am here today because of you! You planted the seeds of Judaism and Zionism in my heart! I am privileged to live in Israel, working as a draftsman and designer. I am married, and the father of two children who know they are Jews. I owe all of this to you!”

If we can have such a profound influence in a few days, imagine how we can influence others during the course of months and years!

Finally, we all have the ability to change the world, by giving our heart, soul and money to important causes and projects. As John Stuart Mill said: “One person with a belief is a social power equal to 99 who have only interests”. 

Vlodymyr Zelensky is such a person. This one man, a former comedian, succeeded in galvanizing the Ukrainian David against the Russian Goliath, and in convincing most of the civilized world to support his heroic efforts. 

In the year 5783, may we all come to realize that “for my sake, the world was created.” May this realization give us the courage to change ourselves, our communities, and the world. Shana tova! ■

The writer, a rabbi and professor, is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.