On the Eve of Yom Kippur, One Person Can Change the World
There is no disputing that the fast-paced, media-centric world of today has done a great disservice to how we focus our priorities. Certainly, it would be irresponsible to blame individuals for the fact that we often lose sight of what is important in life, because it is increasingly challenging to shape our own thought processes. We are heavily impacted, both positively and negatively, by the messages that surround us, and as a result, the things that are truly valuable in our lives often are forgotten.
On the eve of the new year, when we are asked to perform Tshuva, repentance, perhaps it would be wise to respond to this troubling reality and force ourselves to undertake some real introspection and begin to question what is truly important in our world and our personal lives.
As a key example of how we are completely missing out on some of the most critical developments in today’s world, I would highlight the current fires in the Amazon rainforests of South America. By all accounts, this should be an issue that is on the minds of all humanity who are in touch with the world beyond their immediate surroundings. These fires are massive and destructive, they are an environmental and ecological disaster, and — for the most part — they are caused by humans.
It is no exaggeration to say that these forests are critical for our very existence on planet Earth. They literally act as the globe’s lungs by producing the gasses that make life possible.
But humanity as a whole often fails to understand the big picture. That’s not overly surprisingly, because this is the tainted nature of us as people — certain forces seek out immediate economic interest over our long-term existence. As a result, tens of thousands of acres of forest are intentionally being burnt to make way for farms and ranches.
The world is a very big place, and we often largely ignore these developments because few realize the impact that they have on us thousands of miles away. But that can change very quickly, and herein is perhaps the most fundamental — and critical — ethical challenge of our times: To find the way to care about issues that don’t directly impact our lives, but can and will in the future.
All too often we look at a problem in the world and ignore it for the basic reason that it is too large and too all-encompassing a problem, and we innocently respond by asking an understandable but potentially dangerous question: Can we truly make a difference?
This is an approach we take when confronting these massive global issues. Does it really matter if I change my personal habits? The world is an enormous place, and I am but one single person. If I eat less meat or re-use my disposal cutlery, how much of a difference will that make?
The answer is that we are failing in our role as ethical beings when we ask the question from that perspective.
We were put onto this earth not just as individuals to chart our own paths in the world. Rather, we are all partners in the broader story of life. This is true both in our service of Hashem, as well as in how we live alongside others.
We need to realize that ethical practice is first and foremost mandated by a commitment to the welfare of others. And nearly every act we do in life — and those we refrain from doing — should be guided by that very understanding.
This is certainly not an easy task, and too often we place our own demands and interests before asking what is in the global interest. But as we welcome in a new year, as Jews and people guided by ethical principles, we must demand of ourselves to reevaluate those priorities.
Whether it is the fires in the Amazon, wars in far off places, or any of the endless list of challenges and crises that threaten societies, our answer must be that it does matter.
With that understanding in mind, and a willingness to change our world for the better, may we all be blessed with a happy, healthy, and ethically-inspired new year.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Ethics Department of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.