September 10th, 2015

This past Tuesday after Shacharit (morning services) I shared a short piece from Maimonides legal work, Mishneh Torah, with those who had joined us for prayers.

The piece I shared is widely known and quoted, debated and discussed, and appears in the third chapter of Maimonides monumental Laws of Repentance.

Basing himself on a Talmudic source, the Rambam states that a person who has performed more of God’s commandments than he has transgressed God’s restrictions, is a tzaddik, a righteous individual.

If the opposite is true, however, the person is considered a rasha, an evil individual.

If the balance between good deeds and bad deeds is exactly 50:50, one is considered a beinoni – neither righteous nor evil, but hovering somewhere in between the two.

This rule doesn’t just apply to individuals, says Maimonides. If an entire country has more merits than iniquities, it will be considered a righteous country, while if a country is more sinful than virtuous it will be considered a wicked country, with all that this entails.

The point Maimonides seems to be making is that just one mitzvah or one sin can literally tip the balance, resulting in real consequences. In other words, it is not an accumulation of good or bad deeds that leads to a particular outcome. Rather it could be one seemingly unimportant act that determines one’s identity and fate. The tiny weightless straw added to the heavy burden on a camel’s back might just turn out to be what causes the camel to collapse.

Many of the rabbis who expound on the Maimonides’ monumental composition are uncomfortable with this notion. It seems too black and white, and too two-dimensional. Life is so much more complex, and turning human existence into a binary system that seeks to align human fate with single acts, and the fate of countries with such finely tuned calibrations, doesn’t fit in with the way the world seems to work.

Although such objections make sense, this week I had a reality check enabling me to see the world from Maimonides’ perspective, when I joined twelve hundred people who traveled to Washington DC from all over the United States as part of an AIPAC-led effort to lobby our elected officials on the issue of the Iran nuclear deal, and to convince waverers to vote against the deal.

Some week’s ago, together with Rabbi Alan Kalinsky of the Orthodox Union’s West Coast office, and Rabbi Kalman Topp, senior rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills, I went to the local California office of Congressman Ted Lieu, to discuss the Iran Nucear Deal issue with him.

It was evident from our discussions that he was under phenomenal pressure from the White House and the State Department to side with the deal, but also that he instinctively found himself doubting what he was being told about the deal, nd what he was being asked to do.

Our visit and similar visits by others, along with the many hundreds of phone calls he received, eventually tipped the balance, and on Wednesday morning he informed our delegation that he would vote against the deal if the issue was debated on the House floor. We gave him a standing ovation.

The reason I mention this is that I’m sure every single person who lobbied Ted Lieu, all of whom no doubt felt strongly on the issue of this dreadful deal, surely thought to themselves “what difference can I make? I am only one person!”

In the end, though, it was all of us who bothered to lobby, people like you and me, one by one, who made the difference.

Lieu’s office tallied every phone call, and his staff took notes during every meeting. And as a result of all of our efforts, individual effort by individual effort, he decided to vote with his conscience and oppose the deal. Had we not made that effort he might have chosen to do what was easier and surely better for his long-term political prospects – to side with his party on this issue, and to support the President.

It doesn’t stop there. In Washington you really get the sense that one person can make a difference. One senator can be the difference between a filibuster and a vote. One congressman can be the difference between a veto-proof majority and a majority than can be ignored by the executive branch. Individuals count. Individual acts count. Each person can make a difference. A difference in our lives, for our families, for our country, and for the world.

In this week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu begins his monumental address to the Jewish nation very curiously (Deut. 29:9): אַתֶּם נִצָבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְכֶם לִפְנֵי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵיכֶם שִבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְרָאֵל “you are all standing here today in front of God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers, every member of the Jewish nation.”

What point is he making? Why bother specifying the groups if he could just have said, “every member of the Jewish nation is standing here today”?

Evidently that was his point. As part of a group we often rationalize that we don’t count. Our individual contribution seems to be immaterial. Similarly, when we consider how we should act in our daily lives, we dismiss the opportunity of doing something good.

“What difference will it make?” we ask ourselves.

In the same vein we think to ourselves that sneaking in something not so good doesn’t matter – after all, overall we are good people, so what difference will it make?

But every act is important, and every person is important. If each of us would only treat each act as the one that could tip the balance, and think of ourselves as the one person who could alter fate, the world would be a better place, and all of our lives would be so much more meaningful.

You and me – we can really make a difference. It’s a new year. Let’s do it.

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