It is heartening to see thousands and thousands unite across the country for solidarity and to insist on racial equality and respect and protection for every person. It is disheartening to watch the horrific killing of George Floyd. It is disheartening to watch the looting and desecration of synagogues and other houses of worship, the destruction of businesses and property and the violence.
So am I just an observer or is there something that I can do about it?
Israel’s national airline is called El Al. Do you know what the name El Al actually means? It means Onwards and Upwards. Curious name for an airline, isn’t it?
But just stop and think about it for a minute. The names of every other airline are pretty matter of fact – British Airways, American Airlines, Egypt Air, Air Canada. But not the Jewish one. In typical Jewish style, our airline doesn’t just have a simple name stating what it is, it has a name that requires philosophical analysis.
Onwards and Upwards could be the motto of Jewish faith. We never go back, and we never go down. Every life experience is a step forward, every hurdle in our path is an invitation to jump higher. There are no detours, it’s all a part of the ride. There are no set-backs, only set-forwards. We don’t live in the past, trying to regain some glorious moment that was. We march on into the future, trying to make a better moment that will be. Onwards and Upwards.
Rabbi David Lapin, from South Africa, once shared this experience.
As soon as I entered the rabbinate of South Africa, I became concerned about retaining my intellectual independence – something I am fiercely protective of – while serving as a community rabbi at the will of a synagogue’s board of directors. Therefore, I believed that I also needed to secure an independent source of income. And so I first went to work for an international commodities trading company, and later I founded the leadership consulting firm which I currently lead.
There came a time when I felt I needed the opinion of someone much wiser than me, someone who had a global perspective that embraced modernity, history and the future. I decided to seek the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
In 1976 I came to New York, but I had not realized that to see the Rebbe one had to make an appointment many months in advance, and at first I was turned away. Only when I wrote a letter to the Rebbe in which I made the argument that my questions impacted the larger Jewish community – and which I insisted be presented to him – did he invite me to wait until he finished his appointments for the night when he would make time to see me.
I will never forget meeting the Rebbe. I recall that he got up from his chair as my wife and I came in, greeted us and insisted that we sit down. At that moment, I realized that we were going to have a real conversation – this was not going to be just a symbolic encounter.
Indeed, during the meeting I felt that he was looking right inside me and communicating with me on a level that transcends the mind, getting straight to the heart and the essence of being. In addition, I sensed a kindness and warmth – all at once I was in the presence of a great man, an intellectual genius, a leader of the Jewish people, but also a grandfather who cared about me.
I asked him about the responsibilities that I faced and the limitations that I felt, which seemed overwhelming. How could I manage it all? What should I give up – my business or my Torah teaching? Where should I direct my energies?
His answer to me was that I should give up nothing and continue working in business while still teaching Torah. He insisted that every interaction that I have with a fellow human being whether in business or in Torah gives me an opportunity to impact and I should never underestimate the power of that impact.
He said: “You think that human interaction is like a chemical reaction. But it isn’t. In a chemical reaction, there are two elements which interact with each other, and they result in a third compound. But people aren’t chemicals. When people interact, the result is a nuclear reaction. A nuclear reaction occurs at the core and then it radiates in a spherical, rather than a linear, way. As the outer rings of your sphere get bigger and bigger, the number of people you are touching gets bigger and bigger – indeed, there is no limit.
“When you touch the heart of one person, there is a nuclear reaction because that person in turn touches so many other people. So, each person you touch – even if it is a moment’s interaction – represents a nuclear reaction in terms of impact. That’s what it really is.”
He was right of course, and way ahead of the research that, since then, has proven his words to be true. For example, the Framingham Heart Study showed that people’s mood affects others three times removed – that is, one’s friend’s friend’s friends. We impact people not just with our words but with our moods and our energy.
The words we use. The actions we engage in. They all create ripples of change.
We have the opportunity to spread belief in G-d as the Eye that Sees and the Ear that Hears, emphasizing that G-d’s will is the absolute moral compass that decides what constitutes good and what is evil.
Every human being is created in G-d’s image and needs to be treated with the utmost dignity.
We can study about this. Learn the words to use. Get comfortable in sharing moral ‘elevator speeches’ as we often don’t get much time to impart lessons to others. Most importantly never underestimate the power that you have to create change in society through your interactions. We all need that change and you are a critical part in creating it.
Rabbi Mendel (Menachem) Bluming