Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Power of the Individual

A couple of months ago, a single person provided the impetus for the uprisings currently taking place throughout the Arab world - though nobody could have guessed it at the time. A Tunisian man who ran a small fruits and vegetables stand set himself on fire in front of a government building after local police confiscated the goods he was trying to sell without a permit. As a college graduate who was forced into bribing authorities to simply keep his stand open, he was making a statement against the lack of opportunities in his country. What began as one person setting themselves ablaze ultimately set the entire Middle East on fire.

Just to be clear, as Jews, we are forbidden from physically harming ourselves. Furthermore, it's yet to be determined whether this change in the Arab world will be for the better or for the worse. Nevertheless, this episode reveals how one person can literally change the world. Indeed, at every point throughout history, individual people have made a huge difference.

What would the world be like if not for someone like the Chofetz Chaim or Viktor Frankl? They each saw something that needed to be done, tapped into their inner strength, and improved the world. The Chofetz Chaim, a legal scholar and ethicist, recognized that too many Jews were lacking in shmirat halashon (guarding the tongue), so he wrote an extensive work on the importance of fair speech. Ever since, he has been referred to by the name of that work. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and Holocaust survivor, recognized the importance of a psychotherapeutic method that addressed finding meaning in life. He started logotherapy, which has helped spare countless people from despair and even suicide. These are but two examples. We can follow in their footsteps by heeding the important message of Pirkei Avot: "In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be the leader" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6).

Regarding one's spiritual development, the Netziv provides a terrific insight when commenting on the verse, "Follow the path of your heart" (Ecclesiastes 11:9). He states that each individual Jew must find their own way of serving God. Some people carry out their divine service through study or prayer, while others focus more on charity or acts of kindness. Of course, a person can engage in all of these at different times, but it's important to find a specific focus through which you can personally find meaning and fulfill your mission in life. Whichever particular path happens to attract you most, work on it. Every single one of us has the ability to cultivate the divine spark God has given us and achieve greatness.

This can be taken one step further when it comes to a person's career. Although it's terrific for any man or woman to pursue their professional dreams, if they decide to become a stay-at-home parent, for instance, they should also be proud of their work. It always bothers me when women say something like, "I'm just a housewife." In my opinion, that's the most important job on earth. You're raising a family, being gracious to guests, and maintaining a peaceful home, among other things. What's more important than that?! Great things tend to be accomplished by people who embrace what they do and give it everything they have - no matter who may denigrate them from the outside. Never let anyone undermine the passion you give to what you believe is your calling in life.

Enhancing the importance of the individual fits perfectly into the primary focus of this blog. The goal of improving intra-Jewish relations will only be achieved when individual Jews see it through. In other words, it's commonplace for people to say, "why can't everyone just get along?" But they are asking the wrong question. They should instead be asking, "what can I do to improve myself?" Goodness starts at the individual level. If every individual Jew focuses on refining their own character - thus treating even those with whom they strongly disagree with dignity and respect - achieving Jewish unity will be the easy part. Because that will be the result.


  1. Speaking of Victor Frankl, here's a fascinating story of his interaction with the Lubavitcher Rebbe: