I was reading this tonight. I’ve read the stories before of course, but tonight it struck me as something to share. I have re-written most of it as it was longer and perhaps more spiritual in nature than is my own, but none the less I want to pass it on.
On Chanukah we light the Menorah and each night add another flame – a new light. If you notice a house with candles burning in the window, chances are that it’s a Jewish family celebrating Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights. The Chanukah candles in the window shine their radiance into the street. This represents our task to bring the light of morality not only inside our own homes, but also outward into the world.
Many of todays issues and problems make us feel helpless. Certainly the economy has many of us on the brink. The impact we make feels inadequate to the sheer scale of these tragedies. War, terror, homelessness, poverty, illness, famine. There are six billion people on earth. We are but grains of sand on the surface of infinity. How then can we make a difference?
For me Chanukah has several messages. One I don’t think enough about is as follows: We repair the world in small steps, light by light, act by act, day by day. Each act mends a fracture of the world.
A youth was picking up starfish stranded by the retreating tide and throwing them back into the sea to save them. A man went up to him and asked “This beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish. Your efforts are futile, it doesn’t make a difference!” The boy looked at the starfish in his hand and threw it into the water.
“To this one,” he said, “it makes all the difference.”
That story captures a fundamental idea. We can’t fix the world all at once. We do it one day at a time, one person at a time, one deed at a time. A single life, say our sages, is like a world. Save a life and you save a world. Change a life and you begin to change the world.
We call this Tikkun olam, perfecting the world. Judaism believes that it is no accident that we are here, at this time and place, with these gifts and capabilities, and the opportunity to make a difference. We are here because there is a task that only we can fulfill. We can never know the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act.
Another famous story goes like this. This is actually a myth that has been perpetuated over the years and is not true. But we draw so much from telling stories like this. It is our way of illustrating to ourselves the impact a person can have. Even if it is just a story.
One day, so the story goes, a poor Scottish farmer named Fleming heard a cry for help from a nearby bog. There, caught up to his waist in black muck, screaming and struggling to free himself was a terrified boy. Farmer Fleming saved the youth from certain death.
The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s modest home. A rich nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy. “I want to repay you,” said the nobleman. “You saved my son’s life.” “No, I can’t accept money for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door. “Is that your son?” the nobleman asked. “Yes,” the farmer replied proudly. “Please let me provide him with my own son’s level of education. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll surely grow to be a man we will both be proud of.”
Farmer Fleming’s son attended the best schools, graduated from Medical School in London, and became known as Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered Penicillin.
Years later, the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill. It reads like one of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”.
But true or not it shows us our own need for seeing that we can have a greater impact and often we may never even see the results of what we do. Our acts make a difference, sometimes all the difference in the world.
Maimonides, one of the great Jewish sages said “One act can change a life, and transform a world.” How so? Our acts trigger a chain of consequences – psychological, spiritual, and historical – that reverberate in incalculable ways. Could Farmer Fleming have known that this would change his son’s life, and that his discovery of penicillin would save so many others? Could Fleming have known the rescued child would one day stand to save the world from fascism? Obviously not. He could not have known it because the human future is inherently unknowable.
We are here, now, in this place, with these people, in these circumstances, so that we can do the act or say the word that will light a candle of hope in a dark world. “A little light,” said the Jewish mystics, “drives away much darkness.” And when light is joined to light, mine to yours and yours to others, the dance of flames, each so small, yet so beautiful together, begins to bathe the world in the glow of the divine presence.
That, for me, is one the Chanukah messages I hold close.