The World Puzzle

A rabbi is sitting in his study, busily typing away at his computer. Shabbat will be here sooner than he would like to admit and he’s doing his best to finish his sermon in time. His daughter is lying on the floor, playing with her action figures. Every few minutes she wanders over, grabs onto his arm, and says plaintively, “Abba, when can we go home?” He’s tried everything. He tried telling her to give him just a few minutes; he’s tried bribing her with ice cream. When she asks for what seems like the 600th time, he looks around the office in exasperation. And then he sees it. There’s a magazine on his table. The front cover is a picture of the world from space. He knows his daughter has never seen such an image. And, with all those blues, it will be a very difficult puzzle to solve. He rips out the page and rips it into small pieces. “Here,” he says handing the pieces to his daughter. “We can go home as soon as you put the world back together again.”

She smiles at the challenge and disappears with the bits of magazine. He heaves a sigh of relief.  Finally, some peace and quiet. He can finish his sermon and then they’ll go out for ice cream. But he’s typing for only a few short moments when his daughter reappears. “Abba, I finished. Can we go home now?” He turns with surprise. Sure enough, there in his daughter’s hands is the world, tidily pasted back together. “Sweetheart,” he asks, “how did you put the world together so quickly?” “Abba,” she says, “it was easy. On the back of the world was a picture of a person. I put the person together and the world took care of itself.”

For years I have loved this little vignette. I find the father-daughter interaction so relatable. So sweet. And I like the teaching—when you find yourself in those little girl’s shoes, when you find yourself up against insurmountable odds, you just focus on what you know and what you can do; and, with a little glue and attention, your efforts will change the world.

But this past week, I found myself thinking back to this vignette and saw the story in a totally different light.

We live in a world of self. Self-actualization. Self-care. Selfies.

We live in a world which tries to convince us every day that if we master our own challenges—if we make our homes cleaner, our lives more functional, if we can find the perfect partner, be more organized, get more sleep, and find more joy in ordinary moments, then all will be good. The world will be whole.

We live in a world which tries to convince us that the answer to our problems is for people to do more. Imagine, says this voice, what would happen if each person solved their own problems. The world would be perfect. We would have no problems.

Our world values performance. Our bootstraps American dream is one of individual success.

And we teach this to our children without thinking about it. When kids start school, they learn that they will be evaluated on their performance. We tell them that their grades reflect how well they are doing. They are not graded on whether they stop to help a classmate read a difficult word, or whether they help someone carry a heavy load. They are not graded on how often they think of the people in their midst, when they offer a smile of support or a hug when someone is crying. Grades are reserved for math, and science and English. By grading our children’s schoolwork and not evaluating their humanity or their ability to give back, we communicate to them that their success matters more than almost everything else.

To be clear, this is not just a lesson we teach our children, it’s a lesson that we fight against every day. How do we measure our own success? By hours in the office? By papers written or bills paid? By milestones achieved? Have we internalized the message that we are graded on our own performance to the extent that we prioritize our lives, our family, our work over the obligation we feel to heal the world? How often do we take the time to help others?

As our world affirms the power and importance of the individual, the Torah shares a very different message. After the creation of the world, when individualism threatens to destroy the planet, the Torah zeroes in on Noah. Noah is your average guy. He’s a construction worker, not a CEO or a manager, but good at following directions, and he’s built up a life for himself with a wife and kids. When God warns Noah about the impending flood, Noah doesn’t object, doesn’t warn his neighbors that destruction is on the horizon, and doesn’t think to save anyone else. He just gets to work building his ark quietly. And then he hops on that ark with his family and the animals and sits back while the world and everyone he has ever known is flooded to destruction. Noah is all about himself, his family, his life. That’s why, our rabbis explain, Noah was צדיק בדורותיו righteous in his generation. He was the best of the worst, but that’s not saying much.

After Noah, there is Abraham. Abraham who is always looking out for others. Abraham, who rushes in with an army to rescue his cousin, Lot, even after Lot abandons him for seemingly greener pastures. Abraham, who is a generous host to strangers even when he is physically incapacitated, Abraham who lobbies for God to sustain the world, to withhold destruction for the sake of the good people in the world. Abraham is all about doing justice and righteousness in every moment. לעשות צדקה ומשפט. Abraham, our rabbis teach, would have stood the test of time. Even today, we would recognize Abraham’s righteousness. Where Noah cared only for his own well-being, Abraham is deeply invested in the well-being of all those around him and in sustaining the world.

The contrast between Noah and Abraham is stark. All too often we are tempted to be a Noah—to spend our time building our lives, our families, our careers. But when we fixate on our own lives, when we spend all our energy building our own ark, there is a cost. When the floodwaters settle, Noah is a bitter, angry man. He drinks too much. His children betray him. He screams and curses. Life after the flood is a bitter pill to swallow.

And that’s not just true for Noah. We all suffer from too much focus on us, and not enough focus on the world. NPR did a very interesting story recently about how volunteer work can impact well-being.  What they found, in study after study, is that teens who help others have higher self-esteem and individual morale than teens who are just studying for tests and building their lives.  Not only that, but teens who give back experience lower rates of depression and anxiety.

This is true for teens and this is true for us. When we make life all about us, our world shrinks, and our quality of life shrivels. Our goal is not to be Noah. Instead, like Abraham, we must discern how to build our own lives while strengthening justice and righteousness in the world.

I want to tell you about a man who understands this teaching in his core. A few weeks ago, when the gas explosions began rocking Lawrence, Massachusetts, police officer Ivan Soto was on duty, helping to evacuate victims when he heard that his own home had gone up in flames. After making sure that his children had made it out of the house safely, Ivan left his home burning so that he could go help others who were impacted by the explosions. He was one of the first responders to reach Leonel Rondon, the teenager who was struck by a chimney and helped to transport the young man to the hospital.

Ivan didn’t just show up for his neighbors when everything was burning. In the aftermath of the fires, when it came to light that Ivan was selflessly helping others while his home burned to the ground, neighbors started a GoFundMe for Ivan and his family to rebuild. How did Ivan respond? He said, “I just want to make sure that people are donating to the victim’s family. That’s very important.”

Here we are. The world is burning.  Will you go home and worry only about what is yours?  Or will you go to make the world a better place?