By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
We find ourselves at a unique time in history, in between protests, quarantines, and a national election. Emotions are running high, and everyone has an opinion on what’s best for society at large.
I’ve noticed two schools of thought regarding approaching these issues. One is very outward focused: We must check others and reprimand them if they don’t meet our determination of what’s right. This can be vitally important and noble, as the Torah says in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood.”
This view though is also fraught with a danger. We may see our view as the absolute truth and our righteous indignation may cloud over another person’s nuanced perspective on life. It’s interesting that the first words of the above verse say: “You must not go around as a gossiper amidst your people.” Even as you do what’s truly noble in your eyes, be careful with how you use your power of words, by voice or online.
The other approach is inward focused: I first must make sure that I’m living my life at the highest level I can, before I focus all of my energy on changing everyone else. In the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter:
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town, so, as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize that the only thing I can change is myself. And suddenly I realize that if, long ago, I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family could have made an impact on our town. The town’s impact could have changed the nation, and I could indeed have changed the world.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk lived in Tzfat. One day he heard a great commotion in the street. A report had come from Jerusalem that Mashiach [the Messiah] had arrived. R’ Menachem walked to his window, stuck his head out and smelled the air. He sadly shook his head; no, the redemption had not arrived.
What’s going on here? Why did he need to open the window? Through a lifetime of self-refinement, he had achieved such a spiritual awareness that he was already living his life on the level of redemption. He had to open the window to see if the outside world had reached that state as well. It had not.
I believe that both approaches are important. We needn’t wait to be perfect before calling out injustice and impacting the world. But I also think it’s vital that our foundation be reflective and inward focused. Ultimately, we can only (attempt to) control ourselves. The most powerful statement you can make is to embody and exemplify – through and through – the morals and principles you hold dear.
I recently agreed to a debate with an afro-centric YouTube star who felt white people and Jews were subhuman and had stolen black history and made it ours. I prepared every intellectual argument I could think of, but afterwards the private messages I received from the African American community were the same: “Thank you for being respectful and embodying the values of what a Jew is.” More than what you say, type or yell to fellow Americans, people will remember how you made them feel, how you spoke to them.
May this time of collective pain birth a future that is better for it.