Even with a charismatic, visionary leader like Moshe, big changes are impossible without ordinary people choosing to bravely place their faith in a better future. At our February 4th Saturday morning service, Rabbi Lizzi wished us all a happy Tu B’Shevat (the birthday of the trees) and delivered a powerful sermon connecting the story of the first person to gingerly dip a toe into the Sea of Reeds with other brave pioneers in the long history of liberation. You can listen to this drash on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on our YouTube channel.
Michael Pollan, the writer on everything from how to eat to how to change your mind through psychedelics, wrote a short piece back in 2008 shortly after Al Gore had put out his first big film, an Inconvenient Truth. It’s called “Why Bother?” Pollan opens by saying,
“I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the heck out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.”
Happy Tu B’Shvat, happy Birthday of the Trees, everybody.
That article has haunted me ever since I read it. Because it’s the nagging feeling I feel– as I do little things like compost my banana peels and egg shells, and buy LED light bulbs. I wonder if all of us carry this feeling around in one way or another, as we look at the state of the world around us, whether it’s about climate change or about racial justice or peace in the middle east… observing the immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem and the puniness of what we each can do in our limited sphere of influence in our home, family and community.
So thank God for Torah. Thank God for this week’s parasha, which is just what this tired somewhat cynical yet nonetheless hopeful person needed this weekend, against the backdrop of a world where so much can feel just so overwhelming and the prospect of doing anything meaningful can feel so remote.
R’ Deena told us earlier about a character in the Torah named Nachshon, made famous by being the first guy to jump into the Sea of Reeds when everyone else was standing on the shore. Why were they standing on the shore, why didn’t they all run in?? Wasn’t this the big moment!? The Midrash explains it like this: R’ Meir said the “holdup was that the Isrealies were standing on the shores of the sea fighting about who GETS to go first into the sea first!”
Isn’t that a fun vision– a society on the cusp of a major step forward, and everyone is eager to be the first to take the plunge.
But R’ Judah says, “No, it wasn’t like that all. Because no one ever wants to be the early adopters of big shifts whose outcome is not yet certain — not at first. They want to see which way the wind is gonna blow! The holdup wasn’t who GETS to go into the sea, they were arguing about who HAS to go into the sea. And as they argued and argued…” you can just imagine… Why should I have to take the first risk and go first? What did I do to have to make the first sacrifice? I don’t want to be wrong in front of everyone walk into the sea and what if nothing happens?? Then I’ll just get all wet and embarrassed and people will make fun of me… You can imagine that anyone at the front end of a movement for social change might have all of these fears and more. What if they call me names? What if it’s dangerous? What if it doesn’t work?
And as they are bickering, one old man, Nachshon Ben Aminadav steps into the water. And when he does his faith gives Moses the strength to raise his staff, and when Moses raises his staff God parts the sea. And because of Nachson’s faith and bravery, and the contagious domino effect of that courage… all the Israelites stepped into the parted waters behind him and walked to freedom.
We tend to gloss over (or forget to remember) the stories of everyday people, whose names we don’t even know, who made small but brave choices and committed to them, and all of those small, brave individual choices, then added up to something transformational. When we think back on moved the needle in some of our most important historical strides forward, we often think of the great leaders– Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, or big name policies like 19th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act– and don’t get me wrong, thank God for them… but what Nachshon reminds us is that it’s not actually about the charismatic leader– it’s actually about all the people who make the cause their own, who take steps no one asked them to take but they know someone needs to start taking, come what may… that’s what it takes to transform the world… That’s why what each one of us does profoundly matters. We can’t leave things up only to those in positions of authority and power. We have to bother. We have to take matters into our own small, limited hands for seas to part.
Rabbi Shai Held, a modern American commentary writer, says, “Even in an age in which God splits seas the Torah places tremendous emphasis on human beings taking the first step. God will not save the Israelites until they are willing to go forward into the unknown. The sea will not split until someone is intrepid enough to proceed. It is only once the Israelites act, boldly and dauntlessly, that God’s miraculous intervention sets in. In order for the Israelites to leave slavery behind, existentially and not just politically, they must learn to take their fate into their own hands and thereby to rediscover their capacity to act and make an impact upon the world and upon their lives in it.
But,” he writes, “God no longer split seas. God’s presence is more subtle and mysterious. Therefore what was necessary in biblical times is all the more urgent today: people are called upon to refuse passivity as a religious posture.”
This is the lesson, this is WHY BOTHER. Because, Torah teaches, we must refuse passivity as a religious posture.
While it is true that one day out of seven every week we as Jews rest and replenish our reserves by being in the world as it is– not working to change it, but rather accepting it, loving it, loving each other, seeing the world through a lens of perfection and wholeness, singing, celebrating (that day is Shabbat btw)… the other 6 days of the week we work our tuchas off! We plan, we analyze, we aspire, we heal, we build, we argue, we strategize and we work toward creating the world as it could be, and as it should be. We refuse passivity as a spiritual posture.
Which, by the way, is where Reb Michael Pollan arrives at the end of the piece. After going through all the reasons why a person could reasonably justify not bothering, he nonetheless advises– bother. Please, bother. He writes:
“Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.”
So here it is, going on Tu B’shvat, the holiday celebrating the trees and our honoring of nature… What would be a comparable bet that the individual might make in the case of the environmental crisis? Pollan suggests finding one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat- all or partially — an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or you could try to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics (People he is not coming at this as an orthodox Jew, btw). As Hans Detweiler suggested on a recent Mishkan podcast, you could decide to have your next major, expensive appliance or vehicle purchase be the electric version, and not perpetuate the gas and coal economy. You could do what Julius is doing for his bar mitzvah project and plant a tree in an urban area in need of greenspace, and provide the environmental and social benefits that come with it. The idea is that if enough people do these things, it actually does change the landscape, change the culture, create moral imagination and political plausibility, and bring us a step closer to the world as it could be. The world as it must be if we’re to see our children and grandchildren live happy, healthy lives on this planet.
I want to end with an example of some Nachshon’s whose names I don’t have, but whose step into the water forever changed America. And this is a pivot away from talking about the environment, and toward reminding us that for every problem that seems insurmountable, there is a small action that if enough of us do, and commit to, come what may, we can make the world a better place.
On February 1st, 1960 — 63 years ago almost to the day — four college Freshman at a Negro college in Greensboro, North Carolina, decided to sit down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. Those students were refused service because the counter was reserved for whites people only. When they would not leave, the lunch counter was closed for the day. The next day they returned, and then the day after, and then the day after, and other Negroes joined them and sat silently. Over the next two weeks sit-ins spread to 15 cities in five southern states. There was violence against these sit-inners. But the idea of taking the personal initiative against segregation took hold and in the next 12 months, more than 50,000 people, participated in demonstration of one kind or another in a hundred cities. Over 3,600 people were put in jail. By the end of 1960 — not one year later — lunch counters were open to blacks in Greensboro and many other places, and more importantly, the strategy of nonviolent but coordinated, visible and persistent on the ground action by ordinary people against segregation had taken hold and was transforming America.
It is easier not to bother. Most people will not bother, or won’t until reality becomes so uncomfortable that they have to. Or, we’ll argue and argue, at the dinner table, over coffee, in the halls of power, hile the clocking is ticking and Egyptian army is barreling down. Passivity is not a religious posture. Sitting at a lunch counter, or planting a tree, or composting your banana peels and eggs shells, or deciding to start walking or biking on Shabbat more often, might just change the world.