This past summer I called my security company to request a couple of replacement warning signs which had been damaged over the winter for our summer home in the Poconos. Each of the signs had a space to stick on our three-digit address (217). When the service man delivered the signs he realized that he was missing the sticker with the digit “1” – and he did not have any in his service truck. He apologized and said he could send another in the mail. I responded that it would be just as easy to pick up a number 1 sticker at a local hardware store. To my great surprise, when I went to the hardware store a few days later, they had every single number but the number 1. I could hardly believe it and thought to myself “This must be an omen.”
The missing number 1 got me thinking about the importance of one, not in terms of a numeral on a sign but in terms of people. There were so many times in my rabbinic career when we were one person short for a minyan (quorum of 10 people) on days when the Torah was to be read and people came to recite the Kaddish memorial prayer for their loved ones. The one missing person made for an abrupt ending to the service and was disappointing to those who wanted to honor their loved ones by reciting the Mourner’s prayer.
Every individual human being is important and has the potential to make meaningful change. I often think of the rabbi who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah. I so much admired his friendship, warmth and teaching style that I was inspired to follow in his footsteps. I remember my favorite camp director who often told a certain story to the campers that I not only remember but continue to retell to this day.
Many great leaders were great because of the impact that they made on one person’s life. Martin Luther King Jr. had a profound influence on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was my theology professor and taught me the importance of working actively to bring freedom to those who are still enslaved and to speak out for those whose voices are silenced. In 1965, Rabbi Heschel was the only Seminary faculty member to walk out of classes during the Selma years and march with Martin Luther King Jr. He almost got fired for “abrogating his responsibilities” as a professor. But Heschel heeded the call for civil rights and knew it was a time to protest inequality in America.
A wonderful example of every human’s importance is in the movie A Wonderful Life. If the main character had not lived, then his brother might have died. If the brother had died then he would not have enlisted in the military and hundreds of soldiers could have died. Because the main character made a big difference in the life of one human being, the positive effect of this decision was felt by many.
I am reminded of Ben Franklin’s well-known adage that sums up the importance of every human being to the world:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Judaism teaches that if someone kills one person, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world. It takes only one person to make the difference. Is there one person who made such a huge difference in your life that without his/her presence things would have turned out very differently? Might you be the answer for someone else?
Each person can determine the course of history. The new year of 2020 has arrived and there are many opportunities for each one of us to make a difference. Recognizing the power of “1,” let us resolve to say “count me in” the next time we are asked to help, or see an opportunity to make a positive difference.