The dictionary definition of “non-essential” is “not completely necessary.” Synonyms include “dispensable, gratuitous, inessential, needless, and unnecessary.” So imagine the impact on your self-esteem and self-worth when your employer tells you that you should stay home from work without pay for the foreseeable future because you are considered to be “non-essential.” That is exactly what over a million federal workers were told when the government shut down over a week ago. In fact, because the label made so many feel uncomfortable, they have changed the official descriptions to “exempt” and “non-exempt.”
Essential and non-essential. Perhaps when it comes to work these labels can be measured and defined, but when it comes to life is anyone actually non-essential? The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches us, “kol echad chayav lomar bishvili nivra ha’olam, every one of us is obligated to say ‘the world was created for me.’” How do we balance this statement with the declaration of Avraham Avinu, “anochi afar v’eifer” (Bereishis 18:27) “I am but dust and ash?”
Rav Noach Weinberg z”l, the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, used to explain: We are not supposed to say the world was created for me in a self-centered, self-absorbed, hedonistic way. Rather, “the world was created for me” means it falls to me to take care of the world. He would continue to challenge: if you knew you personally could solve the world’s problems, would you not feel the incredible privilege and responsibility to act? Would you not immediately take the necessary action to transform the world for the better? Why don’t we? Because most of us don’t believe we can and we don’t want to exert the energy and expend the resources necessary to try, so we give up before we even start.
The truth is, every single one of us is a unique expression of God in this world and each of us is uniquely positioned to contribute positively to the world in a way that nobody before us or after us possibly can. Being created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, means that we are all essential personnel and each has a mission to accomplish. We simply need to believe that we are worthy and capable and we must be willing to try.
I am reading a fascinating new book by the great historian Martin Gilbert entitled “In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands.” Early in the book, Gilbert describes the origins of Islam. In the year 610, Muhammad came to the conclusion that Arabs were the descendants of Yishmael, Avraham’s older son born in this week’s parsha, and he began preaching new beliefs and visions.
I was very surprised to learn that initially, Muhammad had very few followers. In fact, after three full years he had only 40 disciples. But he didn’t give up and tenaciously continued to spread his teaching and attract converts. By the year 630 he had amassed an army of 10,000 soldiers and conquered Mecca, turning it into a center of Islam. When he died just two years later at the age of 62, only 22 years after he had begun, almost all of the Arabian Peninsula had been conquered for Islam.
Today, Islam boasts 1.6 billion adherents, comprising 23% of the world population. One man, who three years into his endeavor could only convince 40 people he was right, didn’t give up and I don’t need to tell you his religion’s impact on the world today.
There are many examples of individuals who single-handedly transformed the world sometimes for the better, and too often, for the worse. Christopher Columbus led Europe to the Western Hemisphere, Adolf Hitler orchestrated the world’s worst genocide, Eddie Jacobson convinced Truman to support the birth of the modern State of Israel, and the list could go on and on.
In this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, we read about the man who spiritually revolutionized the world and his teachings transformed half of our planet from pagans to monotheists. Avraham Avinu didn’t have a Facebook account or a pulpit; he didn’t publish any books or upload Youtube videos, and he didn’t have his own radio show. Yet he taught the world to believe in one God and to stand for justice, charity, selflessness and righteousness.
Every single one of us is essential and can make the biggest difference in the world if we just believe in ourselves. In last week’s parsha, the Torah describes how Noach didn’t enter the ark until it began to rain. Rashi comments, Noach mi’katnei emunah haya, normally translated as Noach lacked faith in the Almighty, and therefore only entered the ark when he felt the rain actually begin to fall. The great chassidishe Rebbe, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev,, explains that indeed Noach lacked faith, but not in the Almighty. Mi’katnei emunah haya means he lacked faith in himself. He didn’t grasp that he could save the world if he would only inspire those around him and, as Avraham would later, advocate on the world’s behalf. Noach failed to be a transformational leader and therefore witnessed the destruction of the world, all because he simply didn’t believe in himself or his ability to make a difference.
As we continue to analyze the results of the Pew survey, it is clear that we may be witnessing the demise of the world of American Jewry, as over 70% are intermarrying and fully assimilating. While none of us may be a contemporary Avraham Avinu, each of us is obligated to follow his model and to consider how we can contribute to the essential mission of working to positively shape the world. Like some of the individuals I mentioned before, even one person with tenacity, resolve and belief in himself or herself can stem the tide of assimilation and transform American Jewry into a strong, vibrant and deeply committed community. Will it be you?
When it comes to the continuity of our people and our Torah values, nobody is exempt. Every single one of us is essential, so let’s get to work.