The Power of One
On Yom Kippur we examine our actions. The scrupulous review of our deeds that the day calls for teaches us that everything we do, however small it may seem matters a great deal, often far more than we can even imagine.
Maimonides writes in The Laws of Teshuvah:
Therefore a person should see himself throughout the year as if his life is half good and half bad and likewise see the whole world equally poised in the same way. One bad deed can tip himself and the whole world towards destruction. One good deed can tip himself and the whole world towards salvation….therefore all Jews have the custom of doing as much Tzdakah and as many Mitzvot as possible between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.
Global climate change is caused by billions of everyday actions of hundred of millions of people. It is so tempting to say, “what difference will it make if I change my lightbulbs/drive a Prius/….I’m only an infinitesimal part of the problem. My actions won’t make a difference.”
Billions of people telling themselves this are tipping the world towards destruction. The power of Teshuvah is the power of one; the knowledge that each of our lives and our deeds matter and can have incalculable significance.
Sir John Houghton, one of the world’s leading climate scientists put it very beautifully when I asked him why individuals should feel that their puny actions can make a difference to the climate:
First Sir John quoted Edmund Burke, the British Enlightenment thinker who declared: “No man ever made a greater error than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Then after a moment’s reflection he added,
“But I think there’s a deeper answer than Burke’s. You know, I live overlooking the estuary of the river Dovey. Once a year, the sky above my house becomes a staging post for migrating starling. They create the most spectacular formations, tens of thousands of them, banking ,wheeling, whirling, swirling around a vortex , and separating and regathering while replicating the same order; I don’t think anyone really understands how they do it; certainly not the starlings themselves, yet out of the actions of all of those many individual birds come coherent and beautiful patterns of organization. We’re like that too, though mostly we don’t realize it; we view our acts and choice as individuals as if we lived in a vacuum, we don’t understand how we are participating in much larger social organisms.”
Yom Kippur is the time to make a commitment to small but real changes. When each of us decides that we are going to make changes and walk more gently on the planet – we start to tip the world in the direction of salvation.
Jonah and Loving a Tree
At Minchah on Yom Kippur we read the book of Jonah. It marks a shift in the day from a mood of solemnity towards mercy and also from Jewish particularism towards universalism.
God tells Jonah that He will bring destruction on the city of Nineveh and commands Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh to change its ways. Jonah refuses to accept the task and flees from God. God catches up with him, Jonah prophesies to Nineveh and the city repents and is saved. At the end of the book Jonah is still resentful. God sends him a Kikayon tree and Jonah gratefully enjoys its shade. The tree dies and Jonah is very aggrieved. To which God says:
You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow; and should not I care about Nineveh, that great city…” Jonah 4: 10-11.
Many of us switch off and close down when we hear prophecies of impending climate change destruction. They may be scientifically well-grounded, but apocalypticism can be paralyzing. Like Jonah, we turn away and try not to listen. It is often a tree that we love, a landscape, a beautiful butterfly which is endangered that awaken in us an inkling of how much God loves creation and arouse us too to have compassion for the world. The inspiration we need to make the changes we must, need not come not from fear but can well up from love and gratitude.
gmar hatimah tovah.
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