If you were a world leader of global influence asked to address a group of high school students, what would you speak about? There would be multiple factors to consider; that you were going to give a speech that many in attendance would remember for the rest of their lives; that these were young people in the audience who were actively forming their identity as you addressed them; that they were the very people who would create the next world we all live in.
I reflected on this quite a bit in 2014, not because I was a leader of any significant influence, nor am I now, but because I was bringing a student delegation to listen to an address by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was then the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. As we awaited his talk, I found myself wondering how he would think about what kind of message to deliver. At last he approached the podium. In his uniquely eloquent voice he began to speak. What he chose to talk about was, people make a difference.
He told an oft quoted story originally written by the American philosopher Loren C. Eisely, about a girl who is walking down the beach as the tide washes up countless starfish onto the shore. She begins picking up individual starfish and tossing them back in an effort to save their lives. An onlooker observes this girl for a stretch of time. Finally, this onlooker approaches her and says, “You’ve been at this for so long and there are still countless starfish on the beach. Why are you doing this? You can’t make a difference.” In response, the girl picks up yet another starfish and tosses it into the sea, saying “I made a difference to that one.”
I’ve thought a lot about this story over the years and read multiple versions of it. One day something occurred to me about it that I’ve tried to remind myself of at regular intervals. The something is this. Yes, the girl made a difference to the individual starfish but had she done nothing, she also would have made a difference, it’s just that it would have been a tragic one in which animals needlessly died. In other words, the question of whether or not we make a difference is not a question at all. Of course we make a difference. The only real question is, “what kind of difference are we making?”
It is this realization that I believe is at the heart of a passage at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Nitzavim. There the Torah states, “You are stationed here today all of you before the Lord your God, your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your overseers, ever man of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and your sojourner who is in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water, for you to pass into the Covenant of the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10, Robert Alter translation). The specific mention of every level of Israelite society in the context of creating a covenant with God makes it clear that what everyone does makes a difference. The survival of the divine covenant is impacted by all.
We can lift up from this a lesson that rings true in all of our spheres of life. As family members, community members, state and national citizens; as friends, colleagues, mentors and students; we make a difference. This places upon us a profound responsibility and opportunity, to become increasingly aware of the impact we have and to put our actions into ever greater alignment with the impact we hope to have.
Like many healthy mind sets and habits, we have to actively cultivate them and keep them present. We must consider reflective practices to aid us in thinking about the differences we make. Whether it is daily journaling, prayer, meditation or Yoga. We must daily ask ourselves the questions “how did I make a difference today?”, “what did I bring into my relationships today?”, “what would I like to try to bring into the world tomorrow?”
That day back in 2014, Rabbi Sacks helped me and a multitude of students understand that each of us is that girl in the story, everyday is our beach full of starfish. We all make a difference. So let’s make it one we can be proud to tell our own story about.