One of my favorite childhood songs, is a silly tune about a hole in a bucket – maybe you know it?
The song is a dialogue between a woman and a man. The woman, Liza, wants the man, Henry, to fix a hole in a bucket, but every time she makes a suggestion of how to fix it, Henry informs her of a new problem that prevents her solution from being viable.The straw she suggests he uses to fix the hole is too long and needs to be cut; the knife needed to cut the straw is dull; the stone needed to sharpen the knife is too dry, and now the problems come full circle when Dear Henry can’t fetch water to wet the stone because, of course, there’s a hole in the bucket!
Sometimes the problems of the world seem unending and overwhelming. Even when we think we have a plan or solution, there’s always another problem popping up. It’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. No wonder apathy, frustration, exhaustion and depression are rampant in society.
Just a few minutes of your news network of choice, or of your Facebook feed, or daily newspaper, or even the PSA commercials on TV, are enough to make it feel like World War III is around the corner or that a global pandemic or economic crisis, or mass starvation are inevitable, if not already underway.
It is easy to turn off the news, hide the papers, ignore Facebook and fast forward through the PSA commercials. It’s tempting to bury our heads in the sand – after all, what can any of us do in the face of all these seemingly insurmountable problems. What’s the point of trying to fix the hole in this one bucket when the world if full of buckets with holes, and straw that is too long, and knives that are too dull, and stones that are too dry…and there we are, back to the hole in the bucket again!
When Jews are faced with questions about how to address the problems of the world, we are told to turn to Torah, and that the answers will be found within. However this week’s Torah portion might, at first, leave us feeling more confused and frustrated than we were to begin with!
In Parashat Re’eh this week, we hear God’s concern about poverty and the resulting instructions to the People of Israel to help those in need. But a quick read of the verses leaves us with a seeming contradiction. First we are told,“There shall be no poor among you,” but a few verses later we read, “If there is a poor man… in your gates,” and not long after that the Torah states, “(indeed) the poor shall never cease… therefore I command you… open your hand wide.”
So how can it be that “there will be no poor among you” while at the same time “the poor shall never cease”?
Our sages teach that this text is progressing (or regressing) from the ideal vision of the world to the actual reality of the world in order to teach us that the process of eliminating economic and political deprivation is an on-going struggle.
Although it may end only in a time yet to come and difficult to imagine, nevertheless we continue working toward the day when everyone, everywhere, will eat, be satisfied and bless God.
But we also know it’s not that simple.
Even if we continue to do our part to feed the hungry and provide for those in need, what about the rest of the world’s problems? The violence? The wars? The terrorism? The racism? The hatred?
Rabbi Steve Denker, from Ohio, in a recent D’var Torah, asks how, “given the present increase of violence from Mosul, through the Middle East and all the way to Missouri…how can we stem the afflicting tempest blowing across the planet, when even the efforts of powerful world leaders cannot keep fear and terror at bay?”
He suggests two answers:
First, Jewish tradition teaches us to uphold the value of each and every life.This concept is not limited to acts of pekuach nefesh (saving a life in a moment of imminent danger), but rather, it means that each life can be redeemed through righteous conduct, and each person can, by acting righteously, change history and the world.
Even if we find ourselves doubting that the small acts we are able to do ourselves are enough, Judaism teaches us that each and every act is still cosmically significant. And of course, when we combine our actions with the actions of others, the results are far easier to see and have farther reaching effect.
If only one person shows up for a rally, they won’t have achieved much despite their best intentions. But if 100 or a 1000 or 100,000 individual people show up, then the message they are trying to send is louder and has greater impact.
The second Jewish teaching brought forth by Rabbi Denker comes from Pirkei Avot and is one that I often reach for in times of feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand. “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena”, which, loosely translated means, just because you can’t finish a job on your own, does not mean that you are ‘off the hook’ – you must still participate.
You can’t fix every hole in every bucket, but you also can’t ignore the holes and hope that Dear Henry figures out how to fix them on his own.
And who knows, maybe that one bucket will make a difference after all.
Rabbi Denker writes, “There really is evil in the world and we know that the ‘incubator’ that allows evil to spread and recruit followers, is the deadly combination of economic and political deprivation. Where there is general contentment, evil finds few followers, social entropy can be reversed and Yeshuv Ha-Olam (the advancement of civilization) can take place.” If he’s right, and I believe he is, then this week’s Torah portion is all the more powerful and it is all the more important that we follow it’s commands.
By lessening economic and political deprivation we can lessen opportunities for evil to take root. One well fed, well educated person is one less potential desperate target who might be taken advantage of, manipulated, propagandized or paid-off to commit or participate in heinous acts around the world.
It might be hard to see the global impact from our limited range of vision, but both Jewish tradition and human sciences tell us that our actions matter. Whether you prefer Kabbalah or the Butterfly Effect, our actions matter.
This Shabbat marks the coming of the new month of Elul, whose Rosh Hodesh will be observed later this week. Biblically, Elul is the sixth month but, since Rosh HaShannah follows it, we think of Elul as the last moon of the year and the time to begin our contemplation of how we might work to better the world in the year ahead.
Often, during Elul, I suggest spiritual exercises to ready ourselves for the emotional journey of t’shuvah, repentance and renewal. This year, I’m going to push us all to do a little more than to just think about how to ready our souls. This year, I’d like us to act.
I’d like each one of us to pick one organization that is working to address the economic and political deprivation in our world, and to make a financial contribution, or to help them spread the world about the important work they do through volunteerism or advocacy, (or perhaps you might do all of the above).
Elul is traditionally a time for giving tzedakah, and if you haven’t been keeping up with this tradition than I’d like to suggest to you that this is the year to begin or to begin again. It might feel like just a drop in a bucket, but it will be a drop in a bucket that’s hole is smaller than it was before you helped with your time, money and/or advocacy. And if each person from this community contributes at the same time, in the month between now and Rosh Hashanah, then the impact will be that much greater.
On this Shabbat, as we turn away from the year that has passed, a year that we can no longer do anything about, let us turn toward the coming year with hope, optimism and faith that we can do something to lessen the suffering we feel all around us.
Maybe you know the story of the boy who is seen throwing starfish back into the ocean. The beach on which he stands is covered in thousands and thousands of them.
The boy is asked, “do you really think you can make a difference? You can’t possibly save them all.”
The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back in the water and replies, “it made a difference to that one.”
Kein Yehi Ratzon.