Nineteen years ago today, I stood in front of several hundred Columbia University students, grasping for words mere hours after the single deadliest terrorist attack in history. We had gathered for an impromptu prayer vigil on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 and, as a student leader, I was asked to share words of comfort.
At that point, we didn’t know much about the details of the attacks nor did we comprehend their wide-ranging effects. But, we knew that several individuals with ill intent had boarded planes and the world would never be the same.
That week’s Torah portion was Nitzavim, the very same portion Jews worldwide will read tomorrow. In it, Moses tells the Jewish people: “I call upon Heaven and Earth to serve as witnesses today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring may live.” In other words, people are endowed with free will and their choices can have significant consequences, for themselves and the future.
Attentive to the nuances of the text in its original Hebrew, I turned to my fellow students on that fateful day and noted, “Though Moses begins the biblical verse by addressing the nation in the plural, he switches to the singular form at the end, implying that it is up to each and every individual to choose wisely. Just as this morning’s tragic events proved that individuals can change the world for the worse, let’s hope that individuals can change it for the better.”
Years later, I find myself thinking a lot about the power of individuals to make a difference and the psychology of getting us to actualize that power, particularly in the face of large, complex, and seemingly intractable issues like the current pandemic and climate change.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that individuals and their actions can have a far-reaching, cascading impact on the health and well-being of others. It has also shown that individuals are willing to make significant changes to their daily habits for the greater good.
On the other hand, it is easy to feel powerless in the face of today’s multiple, overlapping crises. This week’s headlines are enough to leave most people overwhelmed and immobilized: California’s mega-fires destroyed millions of acres and killed over 100 people; Greece’s largest refugee camp was gutted by fire, leaving 12,000 already vulnerable people without basic shelter; Israel gained the dubious honor of world leader in the COVID-19 infection rates.
In the face of such challenges, how is it possible to move from a place of inaction to action? The 12th-century philosopher Maimonides offers a powerful thought experiment.
People should visualize themselves and the world as evenly balanced between extinction and redemption. The fate of one is intricately linked to the other:
“Everyone should regard himself/herself and the world as evenly poised between innocence and guilt. If s/he commits a sin, s/he tilts the balance of her/his fate and that of the world, causing destruction. If s/he performs a good deed, s/he shifts the balance of her/his fate and that of the world, bringing salvation and deliverance to others (Mishneh Torah, The Ways of Repentance, Chapter 3).”
Maimonides asks us to see ourselves as possessing radical responsibility – a vision equally terrifying and empowering. Embedded within this image are several core concepts:
- Individuals matter. Our choices don’t impact our lives alone; they have the power to influence the entire world.
- Individual actions matter. It isn’t just the cumulative effect of a lifetime of actions that’s important. Every deed is meaningful and can have far-reaching consequences.
- The world is fragile. The existence of the world cannot be taken for granted. It hangs in the balance and is dependent on us.
Fundamentally, this is a vision of hope. Hope in the power of individuals to make the right choices. It is also a vision of a world in which good triumphs. Every minute the world continues to exist is a testament to billions of individual good choices outweighing the bad.
As we enter this unusual Rosh Hashanah in the shadow of a global pandemic, let us not only pray to be “inscribed in the Book of Life” but affirm to “choose life” – one action at a time.