From the Rabbi’s Study
Indispensable in Our Small Parts
Humans seem to have evolved from common ancestors. Scientist point to homo habilus.“handy man,” and others that are part of the homo grouping, known for their brain size and structure, and their use of tools. Homo habilus existed between 1.4 million and 2.4 million years ago and evolved from earlier proto-human forms. They are portrayed literarily in our early chapters of Genesis, beginning with Adam and Eve–both of whom are depicted as emerging also from a proto-human form.
If humans emerged from a common form, we might expect all of us to speak a common language. Yet this is not the case: some 7,139 living languages exist,1 although every 40 days one language ceases.2
Our Tanakh (Holy Scriptures) also addresses this phenomenon literally in the celebrated story of the misguided people who built the Tower of Babel.3 What was the goal of the builders of this tower? “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, with its top in Heaven, and let us make ourselves a name.”4 They believed that if they built the tallest tower, a heaven-scraper, they would acquire instant fame. Instead, Tanakh portrays, they received double the consequences. They suffered a confusion of languages wherein all they could do was babble (“Babel”) unintelligibly, and they were scattered abroad on the face of the earth.
Where did they go wrong? It was, I suspect, that they mistook bigness for greatness, quantity for quality, size for substance. This particular wrong, however, did not disappear with the tower builders; it is yet alive and well among us.
We live in an age addicted to bigness–bigger industries, bigger corporate entities, bigger weaponry, bigger bombs, giant home TV screens, and super-sized drinks. One Hollywood producer spoke of the desire to have a film that began with an earthquake and worked up to a climax! In our concern with bigness, we have forgotten that a poor film becomes only more tedious by being prolonged and that a nation bent on limiting the participation of all of her citizens or controlling others becomes only more dangerous as its power increases, sowing the seeds not for bigger growth but of her own demise.
Greatness is a matter not of size but of quality, and it is within the reach of every one of us. Greatness lies in the faithful performance of whatever duties life places upon us and in the generous performance of the small acts of kindness that G!d has placed in front of us to do. There is greatness in patient endurance; in unyielding loyalty to a realizable goal; in resistance to the temptation to betray the best we know; in speaking up for truth when it is assailed; in the advocacy for those who voices are stifled; in steadfast adherence to vows given and promises made.
G!d does not ask us to do extraordinary things; G!d asks us to do ordinary things, extraordinarily well.
Let none of us believe that greatness has passed us by. If we wish for it very much, it can be ours. Of each of us it can be said, as it was of an actor who had played minor roles for twenty-five years, “He was indispensable in small parts.”
Each of us is indispensable in the part assigned to us by the Master Playwright. Each of us has a job to do that will remain undone if we do not do it. Each of us has love that only we can give. Each of us has compassion that will be denied to the world if we suppress it. We are each indispensable in our small parts and each part is gilded with a glory all its own.
Rabbi J.B. Sacks
1 This is according to Ethnologue: Languages of the Earth.
2 This is according to The Language Conservancy.
3 This story will be read in synagogues this year on October 9.
4 Genesis 11:4.