In the Torah portion Lech Lecha (Genesis 12 - 17), G-d tells Abraham that his descendants will be "like the dust of the earth" (13:16), and two chapters later, like the stars (15:5).
Why is there a need for both metaphors? Does each one represent an idea that the other does not?
In his beautiful, insightful commentary, the renowned Torah scholar Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), says there are, indeed, two different meanings.
When we look up at the sky, we see individual stars, symbolic of the uniqueness of every Jew.
When we look at the dust of the earth, we realize it is virtually impossible to pick up one infinitesimal piece of dust. It is only when millions of particles of dust are packed together that there is earth to walk on Even though every Jewish person is unique like each dazzling star, we are in some ways insignificant if we are not closely knit together as a Jewish people with a sense of responsibility for one another.
In addition to the Jewish focus of the above interpretation, there is also a universal aspect of the stars and the dust of the earth. The stars are beacons of light to all human beings, and the dust of the earth is the foundation that all people walk upon.
The metaphor comparing the Jewish people to stars may suggest we need to be a source of light - caring, wisdom, healing, and hope - that helps all people whose world is dark with loneliness, disease, poverty, and despair.
And perhaps the metaphor that compares us to the dust of the earth reminds us to do our share as G-d's partners to be the terra firma for all people who are too weak, too hungry, too ill, or too hurt by life's hardships to feel that they are on standing on solid ground. How? By providing them with food, clothing, shelter, and other necessary help.
By impressing on students that each of us, star-like, has a unique ray of sunshine that can brighten others' lives, and by emphasizing that we can most effectively help others when, dust-like, we work closely together and realize our responsibility for one another, Hillel professionals - and everyone involved in Jewish education - help ensure a future of Tikkun Olam enthusiasts.
As the Hillel rabbi at Hofstra, I have the joy and privilege of working with college students and being inspired by the profound impact their acts of chessed (lovingkindness) have on them.
From preparing 800 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that are donated to local soup kitchens to writing over 600 cards expressing appreciation to those at the University who rarely get thanked, from sharing their warmth during visits with senior citizens to planning bone marrow drives, students become more compassionate as they devote their time, energy and heart to making a difference.
Immersive experiences have an especially powerful, transformative impact. In January, 2007, I staffed a group of eleven Hofstra students on a week-long Alternative Winter Break to New Orleans to clean homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Here are just a few of the many inspiring reflections I received from students about their experience:
"This trip...has really helped put life into perspective. I have never appreciated my home or family as much as I do now. Throughout the trip, I have taken a lot of time to reflect on what so many people take for granted every day. Spending my spring break in New Orleans has changed my life and I wouldn't change one minute of it for anything. I will always remember this trip and know that I have changed the lives of people who had once lost hope, and there is no greater gift I could ever give than to help restore that spirit of hope in those who need it most." -Adi
"The trip had a great impact on my life. As I gutted each home, I was, ironically, rebuilding someone's life. To know that I was able to make a difference and brighten someone's life is simply amazing." - Nicole
"After spending one week doing relief work in New Orleans last winter [January, 2007], I realized...I would never be the same and knew I would not be satisfied until I could go back and help more. ... The spirit and hope that remains alive in the city is all the inspiration I needed to know in my heart I would find my way back again as soon as I possibly could. A spark was ignited in me during my time spent volunteering in 2007 and has not gone out since. I came back to New Orleans this past spring break..." - Shoshana
In To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, says, "As long as there is hunger, poverty, and treatable disease in the world, there is work for us to do. As long as nations fight, and men hate, and corruption stalks the corridors of power; as long as there is unemployment and homelessness, depression and despair, our task is not yet done, and we hear, if we listen carefully enough, the voice of G-d asking us, as he asked the first humans, ‘Where are you?'"
May we all be able to answer that question with "Hineni - Here I am!"
This is an expanded version of an article originally written for the Young Israel of Great Neck and republished with permisssion from www.goodpeoplefund.org
Written by Rabbi Meir Mitelman of Hofstra University Hillel.