We seem overwhelmed with disasters. Hurricanes, Famine, Genocide, Wars and Chaos. A surge in oligarchies, economic and social polarization. The problems seem insurmountable. What effect can my individual effort have?
With an albeit romanticized legacy of mass marches, protests and demonstrations, many of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s envision a return to collective action to somehow end the war in Iraq, to somehow salvage the US economy from the corporate rape that rapidly impoverishes more and more Americans, to somehow recreate the atmosphere of hope, where anything is possible, that we remember. Maybe we did bring about giant steps, not necessarily completed, towards equality for black Americans by marching with Dr King. Maybe we did end the war in Viet Nam by marching with Pete Seeger. And maybe we even brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon (ironically, perhaps the best president in my lifetime as I now look back). But we can’t forget that each march, each demonstration, each boycott was, in fact, a collection of individual decisions to join in.
It’s easy and natural to be frustrated with a sense of impotence. “If only we can make them……” is almost a mantra. Make “them” wake up, make “them” see what’s going on, make “them” take action, make “them” stop! But this frustration, in these terms, is just a call for compulsion, as if what we want to force “them” to do, because of the “pureness of our goals”, somehow makes it right. Nonetheless, it’s still tyranny and we should remember that no revolution that succeeded has ever not become “them” pretty soon, all idealism shortly secondary to remaining in power. It’s arrogant to think that, even if we could magically “fix” everything, we would be the first generation ever to be immune from the addiction of power.
Our tradition recognized the power of numbers. We hint at this most basically, as we understand the need for “masses” when requiring a minyan for many of our prayers and mitzvot. But even that reality depends on each individual filling their mitzvah of “tefillah b’tzibbur”, davening with a community. It’s always up to each of us in our isolation to act as if we were the tenth, completing the minyan. We each have to act as if our decision is the one that will determine the balance. It can’t be otherwise.
But “have to” needs to be an individual decision each and every time. Our tradition is based on the concept of “bechira”, free choice. This gives us our opportunity to live “in the image of God” by acting from our own decisions, not out of any compulsion, be it social, psychological, legal or religious. And each choice has to be a real choice, not just a false front with the foregone conclusion that we’ll make the “right choice”. Greed, power, possession are so attractive exactly for the reason of making our opportunity to choose more than a sham.
Many years ago, when I davened with Rabbi Shloime Twersky z”l of Denver, a great chassidic master with whom I had the incredible “zechut”, merit, to study under for a time, I remember that he forbade the common practice in most shuls of, during the week, having someone walk through the group after the Amida (central prayer of the service) with a “pushka”, a charity jar. He taught that what might be seen as a convenience was actually a form of compulsion, perhaps only slightly, but significantly, utilizing shame to motivate us to give. That “stole the mitzvah” of “tzedakah”, charity, because it was no longer given completely freely.
We also have the concept of “olam”, a world or a universe. There is “olam gadol”, what we normally call the world with everything in it. But there is also “olam katan”, and that is each and every one of us as separate creations. They’re tied together with a concept of “just as above, so below, just as below, so above”.
This means that to truly bring about true peace, brotherhood and a sustainable future for us all, we first have to repair ourselves, “tikkun olam katan”. Only then do we contribute to “tikkun olam gadol”. And we have to do it freely, Godly, out of our own inner resources, “one hamster at a time”.