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The power of one

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I still remember Mr Seligman, my old English teacher back in high school in Brooklyn, standing at the head of the class, acting out the scene from our set work, the story of Silas Marner by George Eliot, published in 1861.

With power and passion, he dramatised how the miserly man would count his gold pieces so lovingly as the shiny coins slipped through his fingers.

The image comes to mind as we are in the days before Rosh Hashanah, preparing for the days of judgement ahead. Over the coming days of awe, we will, no doubt, be hearing many rabbis pontificating in shul about South Africa, Israel, and the world stage. Indeed, there’s much to talk about.

But, at the end of the day, or at the beginning of a new year, surely what matters most is us – that is me, you, and every single individual. Will we as individuals have any meaningful impact on our country, or our homeland, or the world? Surely our greatest impact and influence will be on ourselves, our families, and our immediate spheres of influence. Yes, hopefully, bit by bit, person by person, the effects we have on ourselves and our families can add up and make a big difference in the wider world. But it all starts at home. In fact, it starts with the individual.

Old Silas Marner counted what was most precious to him – his gold. G-d, too, counts that which is most precious to Him – us. How often G-d would call for a census to be taken of the Jewish people. And sometimes I wonder if we ourselves realise how treasured we are in Hashem’s eyes.

In any census, there are no distinctions made between people. Every individual counts as one, no more and no less. When we’re looking to make up a minyan, we need 10 Jews. Nobody asks you for your resume, how much money you have, or how much Torah you’ve studied. Great or ordinary, we all count for one. Moshe Rabeinu, Moshe Dayan, or Moshe Chaim Goldberg, Maimonides or Mendelsohn, Rabbi Shmulewitz or Mr Shlemiel, all count for one. No more, no less.

But, significantly, every one of us does count. And the Jewish people count on us, every one of us.

The cosmic mission

This little old Jew, wearing thick glasses and pushing a walker, hobbles into the NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) recruitment office in Cape Canaveral. The young woman at the desk asks how she can help him. The man says, “It’s about your advertisement, where you say you’re looking for new astronauts for the next space mission.”

“Yes?” says the woman, rather perplexed. “We’re looking for young men who are qualified pilots, in excellent physical condition, with perfect eyesight.”

“Well,” says the old man, “I just wanted you to know that on me you shouldn’t rely.”

How many of us say, “Don’t rely on me?” or “Don’t count on me.” But we all count. And, yes, we do count on you.

Speaking of astronauts, I remember hearing the Rebbe speaking at a farbrengen and using the astronaut on a space mission as an illustration for the keen sense of responsibility every Jew should feel about our own historic, national mission.

What if the astronaut on board the spacecraft decided one day that he was going to “do his own thing”, that instead of working according to the meticulous plan given to him by mission control, today he would take a break, play it cool, and relax? Obviously, this would be a disaster in the making. With so much time, money, and resources invested in his training, such a thought would be absolute madness and would compromise and threaten the entire project.

Well, said the Rebbe, we Jews too have invested centuries, indeed millennia, into the project of Jewish continuity. We have educated and nurtured generations of young people to fulfil their role as dedicated members of our people and to be committed to our national mission. And now? A Jew with such an awesome heritage and huge responsibility will simply walk away from the project and “do his own thing”? Surely this would be no less of a disaster than that of our foolish, reckless astronaut.

Whether we’re considering our marriage choices, what kind of home we wish to establish, or how we will educate our own children, we all should appreciate that every single one of us counts. And, yes, the Jewish people are counting on us.

When push comes to shove

Here in South Africa, we used to have many small Jewish country communities scattered throughout the land. Today, the vast majority of these have declined and disintegrated as the younger generations came to the big cities to study, work, and find suitable marriage partners. But a fascinating thing about those smaller communities was the dedication of ordinary people to keep the communal infrastructure going. And it wasn’t only about keeping up the shul or the minyan. I knew people who weren’t necessarily “religious” but they headed up the town’s Chevrah Kadisha. They would personally participate in doing the taharas – preparing the deceased for a traditional Jewish burial. That’s dedication!

Clearly, people living in those small towns were more committed because they knew that if not for them, there might be no-one else to do the job. With fewer people available, they felt a deeper sense of responsibility. Interestingly, when those same people moved to the bigger cities, they often no longer had that same degree of involvement in communal affairs.

Rosh Hashanah is a good time to stop and think about our importance in the community and, indeed, in the grand scheme of creation.

Rav Yisroel Salanter, the 19th century father of the Mussar movement, once said that “every Jew should feel as if he or she is the last Jew on earth”. And if they won’t do what needs to be done, there will be no-one else to do it.

Over the years, I’ve made the point to many a Barmitzvah boy that “You count! And you, yes you, are personally responsible for the future of the Jewish people!”

I know it’s a bit of a guilt trip, but imagine if every Jew felt that way.

Rochel and I wish you shana tova, a wonderful new year filled with all Hashem’s abundant blessings for you and your family.

  • With acknowledgments to
  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is life rabbi emeritus at Sydenham Shul, and the president of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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