• Rabbi Marc Kraus

Who Matters?

When Henry Norris Russell, the Princeton astronomer, had concluded a lecture on the Milky Way, a woman came to him and asked, "If our world is so little, and the universe is so great, can we believe God really pays any attention to us?" Dr. Russell replied, "That depends, madam, entirely on how big a God you believe in."[1]

All human beings have a deep-seated need to feel significant. Sometimes we try to differentiate ourselves from others, sometimes we seek fame or recognition, sometimes we seek a code of meaning to live by. Yet, throughout our lives, our need to feel significant manifests itself in different ways.

As children we may have dressed up as superheroes “saving the world.” Some of us perhaps tried to dress differently from our peers as teens. Some of us pursued and still pursue academic achievement and professional recognition. Many of us seek to make a difference in the lives of others.

The Mishnah asks: “What path should a person choose [in life]?” and answers:

“One that is respected by those who choose it, and respected by others.” (Mishnah Avot 2:1)

Choosing a path that we respect and is respected by others is a good route towards self-fulfillment, but not everybody finds it. Many people are dogged by depression throughout their lives and some lost souls seek significance in darker ways, sometimes fighting for political or religious ideologies so extreme that it brings them to do terrible things. It is heartbreaking that people can be so starving for affection and respect.

We can never justify horrendous acts of violence. Yet we also have a responsibility towards others that can go a long way towards preventing them. If we see that a person doesn’t fit in or goes unnoticed, we need to make sure that their basic needs for acknowledgement and recognition are being fulfilled. If we recognize the symptoms of depression in another person, it is our responsibility to try to help them seek treatment in the most genuinely friendly way we can.

We all crave significance, so the Mishnah teaches: “Who is significant? One who recognizes the significance of all other human beings.” Put differently, Malcolm Forbes once said, “People who matter are most aware that everyone else does too.”

We live in a consumerist society, which often makes it difficult to remember that the person “serving” us – online, over the phone or in-person – is actually a human being. We need to interact with others such that they walk away feeling that their skills and service have been recognized.

I’d like to challenge each of us to recognize the significance of others during the coming week:

When we are served by a barista or a cashier, let’s make conversation, learn their name and make them feel appreciated.

Let’s take notice when someone seems to be having a rough day and offer them a smile and the warmth of conversation.

If there is friend we haven’t seen in a while, or better yet, someone new around, invite them round for dinner – everybody loves to know that their company is appreciated.

When we see that something goes well for someone, offer them congratulations or praise. Compliments are free!

Ultimately, whether we are looking into the mirror or out of the window, we should fill our bellies on the conviction that we are each uniquely created in the image of God. If we can hold onto that tightly, it can offer us meaning and significance, and help us shine light into the lives of others as well. [2]

[1] Today in the World, Feb 89, p. 12.

[2] See Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

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