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10 - The Power Of One

This episode we explore our uniqueness.


Hey everybody. I'm Menachem Lehrfield and you're listening to Zero Percent, where we explore world-changing ideas introduced by Judaism. This season, we've been talking all about education, and specifically we've been going through some of Carol Dweck's mindset research from a Jewish perspective. Frank was a regular fixture in his synagogue, never missed a day. He was getting a little bit older. And when he reached his 100th birthday, he just stopped showing up. So one week, and then another week and then a third week. And at that point, the rabbi. Got a little nervous. So the rabbi goes and he visits Frank and he thought, God forbid, maybe something happened. And he knocks on the door and Frank answers, and Frank looks wonderful. He looks great.
So the rabbi says, "Frank, how's it going?" He's like, "Never been better." "So well, how come you stopped coming to synagogue? In my entire time as rabbi of this shul, I've never seen you absent once. You've never missed a week. How come all of a sudden you hit 100, you stopped coming?" So Frank says, "Rabbi, come here." And he motions him over. And he whispers in his ear and says, "Listen, Rabbi, when I turned 95, I thought any day God is going to take me. And then 96 and 97 and 98. Finally, I turned 100. I'm beginning to think he forgot about me. And if he forgot about me, I'm not going to remind him."
Oftentimes, we go through life and it's hard to know, well, do I really matter? The Hebrew word for face is [foreign language 00:02:00], which is the same as the word [foreign language 00:02:03], which means internal. And the idea is that just as no two faces are exactly alike, even identical twins, that means from the beginning of time, until the end of time, no two human faces are exactly identical. And just as no two faces are the same, no two people are the same inside. Every single human being is unique. Each and every one of us is unique. And there is nobody in the history of mankind that has ever been exactly like any of us. And we need to begin to look at ourselves as those unique beings. And we need to begin to look at others in that same way.
There's a beautiful story, which I'm beginning to doubt actually happened. And I usually don't like telling stories unless I can actually verify that they've happened. So the following story... I'm going to tell you the story first, so I don't take away from it because it's a beautiful story. And then if you want afterwards, you could hear my cynicism as to whether or not it's true. The great composer Arturo Toscanini hired a biographer to write his biography. And this great biographer is writing a story of Toscanini's life. And he asked him if he can come by his apartment to interview him one evening, and Toscanini said, "I'm sorry, I can't. I have plans." So the biographer said... He pried a little bit. He had that relationship with him. He said, "Well, what are your plans?"
He said, "I'm going to be listening to a symphony on the radio. It's actually a symphony that I conducted myself several years ago." So the biographer said, "Oh great. Can I just come and listen with you?" He said, "No, I'm sorry. I always listen to these things by myself." He said, "Come on, just let me come." And they fought back and forth, and Toscanini finally said, "Fine, you can come, on condition you don't say a word. If you want, you can come. You can sit there with me quietly, but not a word." Fine, okay.
So that night, the biographer knocks on the door. He comes ahead of time so he's not interrupting in the middle of the symphony. And they sit there in complete silence, listening the entire time. And as soon as it's over the biographer looks at Toscanini and says, "Wow, wasn't that magnificent? Wasn't that beautiful?" And the famous composer looked at the biographer and answered with just one word. He said, "No." "What do you mean, no? It was so beautiful. What was wrong with it?"
And Toscanini said, "There were supposed to be 120 musicians playing. There was only 119. They were missing a violinist." So the biographer's smirking to himself. He's not going to get started arguing with the great composer. He says, "Okay, whatever you say." The entire way home, he's thinking, is that possible? Can Toscanini really know if one violinist was missing? Can't be. So the next morning he calls the director of the orchestra, and he says to the director, "How many musicians were playing last night?" And the director said, "Funny, you should ask. We were supposed to have 120, but at the last minute, one of the violinists got sick and he didn't show up."
The man's floored. How's that possible? It's not even like he was live and sitting there. You're hearing this over the radio. You can really hear the difference? So he goes back to Toscanini and he says, "Come on, did you call ahead of time? Did you know that the guy... you like friends with the violinist who didn't show up? What's the catch?" And Toscanini said, "There's a huge difference between you and I. When you listen as a member of the audience, you hear and you say, 'Oh, it sounds nice. It sounds beautiful, magnificent.' But as the conductor, the conductor knows every single note. The conductor knows every single musician. Every single person has a part to play. And if you're not playing your part, it doesn't sound the same. You might not be able to hear it. You might not be able to understand the difference, but he knows because he's the conductor."
We each have music to play and we have to play our own instrument and we have to play it to the fullest. Every single one of us is unique. That means there's no extras. None of us gets to be the rock in the school play. Every single one of us is the lead role in our lives. That's what it means. The Talmud tells us that God created man alone. Why? Creates billions of rocks, billions of trees, tons of each type of animal. Why create just one human being, especially when the world is meant to be populated? Just create lots of them. The Talmud says the reason why God created just one man by himself is to teach us that every single human being is a world unto themselves. And if somebody saves a life, it's like you save the entire world. And if somebody destroys a life, it's like you destroyed the whole world.
That is the emphasis we place on every single individual because every one of us has unique opportunities, unique capabilities, unique potential. Every one of us is truly unique. The historian Paul Johnson met with the chief rabbi of England, and Rabbi Sacks asked him why... Paul Johnson's not a Jew. He said, "Why did you spend so much of your career writing about the Jews? Why were you so fascinated by the Jewish story?" And he said, "The Jewish people are the only people..." Again, this is not me saying this, this is Paul Johnson the historian. "The Jewish people are the only people who have properly found the balance between the individual and the community." He said, "You have places like China, where it's all about communism. It's all about the greater good. You have places like America, where it's all about the individual." We live in the I generation, the iPhone, the iPad. I always say even the we is just two Is.
There's something really telling about that. We live in a very I-centric society. The Jewish people find the balance between the two. It's not just about the I and it's not just about the we. The American ideal is e pluribus unum. out of many, one. It's the idea of the melting pot. Everyone come from all over, come with all of your uniqueness and all the things that make you unique and special, melt them all down. That's the idea of the melting pot. And then we'll spit out this product of the American. We'll strip you of all of your culture, of all of your background, take it all away and produce something that's this amalgamation of everything.
Judaism is exactly the opposite. It's not out of many, one. It's out of one, many. Even when we're unified, even when we're one, we look at the individuals. We look at the unique elements of every single person. In the Torah portion of Nasso, the Torah goes into great detail recording the different gifts that the [foreign language 00:09:46], the priests, the princes, the heads of each tribe brought to the tabernacle, to the temporary portable temple in the desert. What's unusual as the Torah does not waste any extra ink. There's not a single extra letter in the entire Torah, and yet what's remarkable about the gifts that the [foreign language 00:10:07] brought is that every single one of them was identical.
Go back and look at the Torah portion. You'll see it repeats the same verse practically over and over and over and over and over again. The Torah doesn't waste a single extra letter anywhere else, and yet it's repeating the exact same thing over and over again. Just say the heads of each tribe brought the following and then say the things. Say what the gifts were. Why go through every single one? And the answer, our sages tell us, is because they might've brought what looked like the same thing, but because every single human being is unique and every single person is different, when each one of those [foreign language 00:10:49], each one of those princes brought a gift to the temple, they brought it with the full range of who they were. And therefore, every gift was unique.
It might've looked the same from the outside. The materials might've been identical, but the way each one of them brought it and the representation of who each person was, was truly different and unique. And therefore the Torah goes through every single gift, saying word after word after word, to teach us that it might look the same from the outside, but inside it's truly unique.
There's a beautiful blessing that we make when a person sees a myriad of Jews, whatever that number means. A lot of them. I think we say it's 600,000. So when you see 600,000 Jews together, you make a special blessing. Imagine standing there. Okay, you're standing there, you see 600,000 Jews all together. There's a special blessing that we make. What do you think that blessing is? I would talk about the masses of people, right? It's the blessing specifically about this huge group of people. Talk about the masses. Talk about this huge group of people that have assembled together. The truth is, we say the blessing whether they came for the same purpose or not, and whether they were unified or not. But you would think the blessing would speak about the enormity of the group in front of you. Yet the blessing is, you God are great. Why? Because you know the secrets of each person's heart. What? Of all the blessings to come up with, we don't even mention the large group.
It should be clear at this point. The blessing is not, and the greatness is not that we have a huge group of people. The blessing is that within a huge group of people, we see the unique elements. We see the unique individuals because the individuals are what make up the group. When the Jewish people go through the splitting of the sea, so the sea splits incredible miracles. They walked through on dry land. They get to the other side and all of a sudden, like a Disney musical, they break out in song and they sing this song, the [foreign language 00:13:00] to God.
And one of the lines of the [foreign language 00:13:03] is [foreign language 00:13:06]. This is my God and I will glorify him. And the commentators ask, why does it say, "[foreign language 00:13:12], this is my God?" It should say, "This is our God." Right? Three million people are experiencing the same thing at the same time, talk about the fact that they're saying this together in unison. And the answer is no, a group did not experience the splitting of the sea. A group did not experience the [inaudible 00:13:34]. Three million individuals experienced that. And yes, we can become a group, but that doesn't take away our individuality.
There's something remarkable. God promises Abraham, that his children will be like the sand of the seashore and the stars in the sky. And God comes to Abraham and says, "Your children will be like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore." First of all, it's not true. As we talked about, we make up 0% of the population. We are not numerous as the stars. Not only that, God tells us throughout the Torah multiple times, the prediction is you will remain few a number, which has by the way, defied all laws of statistics. We should not be few in number if we're going to be eternal. Either eternal or few in number. If you're going to be an eternal people, you're going to be around for a very long time, like say the Asians, there should be billions of you. That's just how population works.
So if you're going to be eternal, there should be many of you. But God says, "No, no, no, no, no. You guys are going to be different. You're going to be an eternal people, but you will always remain few in number." Okay? So if you're telling us that we're always going to remain a few in number, then why is God telling Abraham his children are going to be like the sand and the stars? Not only that, just tell us, "You're going to be like the stars," or just say, "You know what? You're going to have lots and lots of descendants." Why do we need both examples, the sand and the stars?
And I think the idea is that God is not telling Abraham the quantity of his children. He's explaining to Abraham the quality of his children. He's saying, "Your children will be like the sand and the stars." Every single star is unique. If you're gullible enough, you can name the star after you or a loved one. If you like using your money that way. It's a free country, you can do whatever you want with it. But in all seriousness, we're told, even from Judaic sources, every star has a name. Every star is a unique and important entity. We look at the sun and we're like blown away. Every star is the sun. Every single star is powerful. Every single star has a name. It's a unique individual.
Sand, on the other hand, is insignificant by itself. If I come home from the beach with a grain of sand in my hand, and I say, "Oh, look, I brought you something," you would say, "What'd you bring me?" I'd say, "Oh, it's right here. Can't you see it?" "No, you didn't bring me anything. I don't see anything there." "Oh, it's there, just have to look very carefully." Sand by itself is insignificant. It's annoying. It's a nuisance. Sand together, that's a force to be reckoned with. A sandbag can hold back a storm. A sandbag could hold back a surge, something much stronger than it. Sand is extremely powerful when it's together. The sand and the stars represent this duality. On one hand, we're unique individuals. On the other hand, we believe in the unity of the Jewish people. We believe in coming together as one, because together we can accomplish so much more than we ever could accomplish by ourselves.
But what's remarkable is the analogy. God, doesn't say we're like dirt. He says we're like sand. When I pick up a handful of sand, what happens? The sand begins to slip through my fingertips because even when it's together, even when it's unified, each and every grain of sand does not lose its individuality. And therefore, that is the ultimate analogy for the Jewish people. You'll be like the stars. You'll be individual. You'll be powerful. But your worth and your value also only come when you're unified together. When you unify together as a people, that's when you'll have value, that's when you'll have importance. But even in that moment, even when you're coming together, even then, you're coming together with what makes you unique, with what makes you special. That's all the time we have for today. Thank you all so much for joining us here at Zero Percent. We hope to see you back here next week.

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