The Hebrew month of Elul is here – the month, with its daily blowing of the shofar, that reminds you that Rosh Hashanah is just a short four weeks away and it’s time to give serious thought to your personal responsibility to do your part to make the coming year a better one.
In light of the immensity of the problems facing the world, how can you make a difference? Can you imagine playing a role in actually changing the world?
Judaism gives a startling answer. Maimonides expressed it through a remarkable illustration. Every person, he taught in his Laws of Repentance, needs to think that as God judges the world before the High Holy Days, He finds it perfectly balanced between its transgressions and good deeds. God’s final judgment is held back until you are brought into the equation. And if your deeds also seem to be almost perfectly balanced between good and evil, then just one additional good deed, no matter how small it may be, can be the one to tilt your judgment favorably, which in turn would decide the fate of all of humankind.
Changing the world begins with two words: think small.
Maimonides is impressing upon us that every action you make has consequences on the divine scale of judgment.
That’s why the most important piece of advice I can give about ways to change the world are two words: think small.
Just a few years ago Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel peace prize for turning the concept of thinking small into a major innovation that has already revolutionized the banking system as well as the lives of millions of people. It was in 1974 that Bangladesh was hit by a devastating flood followed by a severe famine. Yunus decided to lend $27 without any collateral to a group of women of the city of Joba nearby the University where he worked as a teacher. Women there made bamboo baskets but were forced to sell them at such a low price that could barely pay for the raw material. They could never purchase larger amounts for lack of capital. Yunus initiated what is now known as microcredit, allowing poor people anxious to make a go of small businesses to succeed.
With the small sum they received they were able to finance their work and to establish themselves. Micro-finance, or microcredit, was born. Thinking small, something never practiced before, created a new way of life and of opportunity. One small act changed the balance of the scale – and millions today prosper.
And there is yet another way to think small. It is expressed beautifully by way of a story told in the name of the great 20 century rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim.
At one time, he was asked how he was able to have such a great impact on the Jewish world. This is how he answered: “Originally, I set out to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community of my hometown of Radin, but I achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family and I failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
Leo Tolstoy came to the same conclusion. “Everyone thinks of changing the world,” he wrote, “but no one thinks of changing himself.” And so the world continues with its myriad flaws, everyone complaining about the common sins of others while paying very little attention to themselves.
Most people want to change the world to improve their lives, but the world they need to change first is the one inside themselves.
There is a movement today that has taken the concept a step further into practice. It concerns itself not with the really large issues, issues which realistically most of us will be unable to influence, but with the smaller daily interactions which in fact define everyday life. It’s called “small acts of kindness” and I love it precisely because its demands are so easy and yet, if universally practiced, would really change our lives.
The suggestions are simple. Choose one or a dozen:
- Give a genuine compliment to somebody at least once a day.
- Write down what you appreciate about another family member and pass it along.
- Check in with someone who’s sick.
- Ask if you can help someone who may be having a difficult time in life right now.
- Lend your vehicle to take someone without one shopping for their necessities.
- Hold the door open for the person behind you.
- Make a card for someone special.
- Deliver flowers anonymously to a hospital patient.
- Ask a senior citizen about their life story and truly listen.
- Give a hug to a loved one or friend.
- Offer to pay another person’s food bill.
- Lend a hand to someone doing hard work.
- Donate to a homeless person, perhaps give them some food.
- Leave a kind server a generous tip.
- Let a person out from a side road who’s waiting to get into the main road.
- Help another parent out with a stroller or carrying things.
- Give someone a book that you no longer need.
- Give your parents or grandparents a call just because.
- Volunteer at a community event.
Grandiose plans are great – but we rarely do them. Impressive ideas for changing the world are, yes, impressive but frequently impractical and unrealizable. So perhaps this year before Rosh Hashanah we could scale down our ambitions and think small – and in that way change ourselves and our own world.