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    We Never Know the Full Meaning of Our Lives: How Did World War 1 Begin?

    The Power of a single action

    Wise Old Man

    A retired man moves near a junior high school. He spends the first few weeks of retirement in peace and quiet. However, when a new school year begins, three young boys beat on every trash can they encounter every day on their way home from school. The noise and commotion drive the old man mad. He can’t bear it.

    Finally, the man decides to take action and walks out to meet the boys. He says, “You kids are a lot of fun. I’ll give you each a dollar if you’ll promise to come around every day and do your thing.” The kids continue to do a bang-up job on the trashcans.

    After a few days, the man tells the kids, “This recession’s really putting a big dent in my income. From now on, I’ll only be able to pay you 50 cents to beat on the cans.” The noisemakers are displeased, but they accept his offer.

    A few days later, the retiree approaches them again. “Look,” he says, “I haven’t received my Social Security check yet, so I’m not going to be able to pay more than 25 cents. Will that be OK?”

    “A freakin’ quarter?” the drum leader exclaims. “If you think we’re going to waste our time beating these cans around for a quarter, you’re nuts. We quit.”

    We have here an example of an old clever man who understood how to teach these lads that their acts have value and are worth money. This is the theme of our essay.

    We Do Not Know

    Nine plagues have devastated Egypt. Pharaoh finally consents. He offers Moses to leave—the adults together with his children. He just demands that the cattle remain behind in Egypt. Moses responds:

    “You too shall give sacrifices and burnt offerings into our hands, and we will make them for the Lord our G-d.And also our cattle will go with us; not a [single] hoof will remain, for we will take from it to worship the Lord our G-d, and we do not know how we will worship G-d until we arrive there.

    “G-d strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them out.”

    Moses is making a strange argument. We need all of our cattle with us, he tells Pharaoh, because we are unsure how we will worship G-d until we arrive at our destination of worship. Perhaps G-d will ask for more cattle.

    What does this mean? Did Moses mean these words literally? If not, why did he say them? And why did Pharaoh not tell him to ask G-d how much cattle they need? And why, after these words of Moses, did Pharaoh suddenly have a change of heart yet again and decided to remain obstinate?

    Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Altar, the first Rebbe of Ger,[2] known as the Chidushei HaRim, offers an interesting interpretation. Moses’ words “we do not know how we will worship G-d until we arrive there” were meant for Pharaoh but also for every Jew in every generation until the end of time. “We do not know how we will worship G-d until we arrive there” means that there is no way we can be aware of what really consists of serving G-d “until we arrive there”—until we will be privy to see the full picture of history and the full meaning of our lives here on earth.

    It is often tempting to define how we think G-d wants us to serve Him. We create an image of G-d wants from us. But in truth, “we do not know how we will worship G-d until we arrive there.” We never can fully know what G-d wants from us; how He wants me to serve Him. Sometimes, our lives situations need to open us to the possibility that G-d expects something very different from each of us.

    Similarly, we often discredit our small actions and minor victories. We view them as insignificant and “news not fit to print.” We think that a significant action is one publicized on the websites, newspapers, Facebook and Twitter. We live in a society where greatness is measured by the appreciation and acknowledgments of others, where fame is both glamorous and desirable, and where deeds have to be reported by newspapers to be deemed noble.

    But that is not always the case: what seems to us as trivial and small, may one day appear as awesome and incredibly impactful. “We do not know how we will worship G-d until we arrive there.” When “we arrive there,” the world to come, or the future world of Moshiach, we may see things very differently. What may have seemed to me as a futile struggle may turn out to be my deepest calling.[3] Service of G-d happens first in the intimate chambers of the human heart. When I control myself from cursing, or losing my temper and hollering, it may never be reported in the news, but nonetheless it is a true act of serving G-d.

    A Jew from Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaim Sholom Deitch, shared that when he was young he remembered Karliner Chassidim from Jerusalem who after walking down the street and controlling their eyes from temptation, would enter into the synagogue and go a little dance to celebrate their moral victory.

    It is a lost art today. We do not appreciate our minor victories. Either I am a world-hero or a loser. But that is not true. You refine an emotion in your heart, you curtail a negative instinct, you break a bad habit, you subdue your ego, you do a favor to another person, you do not pursue an addiction, you stay away from a promiscuous relationship, you say a blessing or a chapter of Psalms with mindfulness—these are the stuff of Divine service that capture the dignity and purpose of human existence.

    Take the tory of Joseph. He was a youngster working in an Egyptian home. His master’s wife tried to seduce him but he steadfastly refused her. We may look at the story and say, “OK, we all have such experiences where we must withstand seduction and temptation. Some of us fail and some of us succeed.” Yet the Torah turns this into a central story in Genesis. As a result, after a long series of events, he becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt and saves Egypt and the Jewish family from famine. In the imagination of Judaism it is an act like that of Joseph’s which contains extraordinary power, majesty and significance. Had the Torah not told the story, we may have dismissed it as not very important. But in G-d’s book, it is one of the most important stories of ancient Jewish history.


    The Talmud relates the following episode:[4]

    Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehosua fell ill, lost consciousness and came very close to death. Today we call it a near death experience. When he returned to life, his father asked him what did you see “on the other side.” Yosef responded:

    “I saw an upside down world: The ones who are prestigious and superior in this world, ended up low in the true world; those who are lowly in this world, are superior in the true world.”

    His father told him: “You have seen a clear world,” not an upside-down world. We are the ones who see an upside down world. In our world we often judge what the right way to serve G-d is. we define Divine service in a box. But it is not always that way. The struggling young man or woman may have a different path and calling. The struggling mother or father may need to embrace the truth that their path is unique.

    And in our world, some things may be extremely important, yet in the other world it turns out not important at all. Conversely, in our world we may look at an act and feel it is valueless, but in that world it is this act which holds so much importance.

    It was Maimonides who wrote:

    A person must see himself and the world as equally balanced on two ends of the scale; by doing one good deed, he tips the scale and brings for himself and the entire world redemption and salvation.

    I never know the significance of a single thought, word or deed. I do not know what consists of real service of G-d till I do not arrive at “the destination.”

    We too often assume the great are the only ones who make a decisive difference in the world. It takes a Lincoln, a Napoleon, an Alexander — or a Newton, an Einstein — to change the course of human events. But Citizen Drouet was a modest French provincial who, by dragging a cart across an arched gateway near the bridge at Varennes, foiled the attempt of Louis XVI to flee Paris. One of the frustrations and glories of action is that we cannot know the ripple effect of what we do. Exertions for good should never be seen as wasted; causality is complicated and a mitzvah may change the world for better in ways we cannot imagine.

    World War I

    The First World War began in July 1914 and lasted till November 1918. The Austria-Hungarian Empire fired its first shots on Serbia; soon Russia, France and Britain joined Serbia, and Germany joined the Austria-Hungarians. Italy, Japan and the United States joined the Allies—Serbia and Russia; while the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Austria Hungarians. From the time of its occurrence until the approach of World War II in 1939, it was called simply the World War or the Great War, and thereafter the First World War or World War I.

    More than 15 million soldiers died and 21 million more were wounded, while millions of other people fell victim to the influenza epidemic that the war helped to spread.

    The war left in its wake three ruined imperial dynasties (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey) and unleashed the revolutionary forces of Bolshevism in another (Russia). In the end, the uneasy peace brokered at Versailles in 1919 kept tensions in check for less than two decades before giving way to the most devastating Second World War and the Holocaust.

    The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, determined post-war borders from Europe to the Middle East, established the League of Nations as an international peace organization and punished Germany for its aggression with reparations and the loss of territory. Tragically, the instability caused by World War I would help make possible the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and would, only two decades later, lead to a second devastating international conflict, far larger in scope and atrocities.

    To many people, the Great War—as it was known at the time—seemed to come out of the blue, as the European continent was enjoying a long stretch of unparalleled peace and prosperity.

    But how did World War I begin?

    Because of a single act by a single person.

    Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Austria-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, traveled to Sarajevo in June 1914 to inspect the imperial armed forces in the turbulent Balkan region that was annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908 to the indignation of Serbian nationalists, who believed it should become part of the newly independent and ambitious Serbian nation.

    On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were touring Sarajevo in an open car, with surprisingly little security. A Serbian nationalist, one of a group of assassins, a man named Nedeljko Cabrinovic, lobbed a grenade at the motorcade. The problem was he was using a lousy 1914 grenade, so it took 10 seconds to detonate, and by then Franz was out of range. The unlucky ones in the car behind them were hurt instead, and the assassins dispersed in the chaos.

    Cabrinovic took a cyanide pill that failed to kill him and jumped into a three foot river to “drown” himself. Franz and his party, it seemed, were safe.

    But Franz was not yet done putting his life in danger. Against the advice of pretty much everyone, he insisted on going to the hospital to visit the people injured by the grenade. The driver had no idea where he was going. They ended up crisscrossing hilariously through the streets of Sarajevo, until they just randomly happened to pass a cafe where a 19 year old nationalist by the name of Gavrilo Princip was enjoying a post-failed-assassination sandwich.

    Seeing his opportunity, Princip fired into the car, shooting Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range. Princip then turned the gun on himself, but was prevented from shooting himself by a bystander who threw himself upon the young assassin. A mob of angry onlookers attacked Princip, who fought back and was subsequently wrestled away by the police. Meanwhile, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lay fatally wounded in their limousine as it rushed to seek help; they both died within the hour.

    Austria-Hungary, like many countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Slav nationalism once and for all. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. World War I broke out. Four years later, millions upon millions were dead.

    I ask you: when Gavrilo Princip fired his shot on Ferdinand, could he have known what he was really doing? In his mind he was killing an enemy of his nation. In reality, his single act triggered a world war that would transform history forever!

    Here we have it: Repeatedly the world is changed not by the exertions of genius but by the initiative, good or bad, of an otherwise unknown individual human being.


    Let us recall a positive example. This week’s portion tells the story of Moses, the greatest leader, who liberates a nation of slaves, molds them into an eternal people, transmits to them and to the world the Divine blueprint for life, and alters history.

    But who is responsible for the Moses story? It was one scene, occupying just a few lines in the Torah. It was one person, performing a single act. As the story goes, Pharaoh’s daughter (she is given no name in the Torah) spots Moshe’s basket among the reeds while bathing in the Nile. She takes pity on him, assuming correctly that he is a Hebrew child. She then hires the infant’s real mother to nurse the child, and when he is old enough he goes to live with Pharaoh’s daughter, who gives him his name, Moshe.

    Could she have ever imagined what she was accomplishing by fetching the basket of an infant? Could she have ever imagined that by rescuing that baby—she was transforming history forever? She was raising the boy who would overthrow her father’s Empire and his brutal oppression? By displaying compassion for that abandoned child she was giving the world the greatest gift ever—the gift of Torah? By lifting that child, she was, in effect, giving our world the dignity of purpose?

    So when this little boy grows up, it is he who knows very well that “we do not know how we will worship G-d until we arrive there.” We never know the full meaning and significance of a noble act. Only G-d knows. And that’s enough.[7]

    Oscar Wilde once said: “The nicest feeling in the world is to do a good deed anonymously and have somebody find out.”

    Between Moses and Pharaoh

    In Judaism, life is first and foremost about your own intimate relationship with G-d. And thus each act, word and thought contains profound value and generates deep results.

    Pharaoh cannot fathom this. For him, fate is blind, dictated by the semi-gods. Humans are inherent slaves who just fit into a predictable cycle. There is no human choice and creativity. We are all enslaved to an eternal routine. Pharaoh can’t appreciate the truth articulated by Moses that a small step—and act—by man can constitute a giant leap for mankind.

    In Moses’ world, every sheep counts. Every act of service is meaningful. Life is about the celebration of our intimacy and partnership with G-d—minute by minute, act by act.