Sometimes it all seems so hopeless.
Half the world goes to sleep hungry. Today’s news may bring one “regional conflict” to the forefront of our attention, even as the other dozen wars rage on, with one group of human beings hacking off the limbs, burning down the villages or pulverizing the shopping centers of another group. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in a more civilized part of the world, you can observe the more civilized forms of man’s cruelty to man, as people break each other’s hearts and trample everything good in themselves underfoot in the rampage for money, power and “self-realization.”
You want to do something, but it all seems so hopeless. You can feed a hungry child, yet millions more remain hungry. For every kind word you speak, so many nasty, hurtful, antagonistic words are spoken all over the world. For every good deed you do, so many evil deeds are committed. What can you possibly hope to achieve?
Jacob was nobody’s fool. He may have been “a guileless man” (Genesis 25:27), but he could muster enough guile to wrest the birthright and the blessings from Esau and to best the conniving Laban at his own game. He knew how to talk his way out of an assassination attempt, build a fortune from scratch and wrestle with an angel. One can safely say that he knew the world in which he lived.
And the world in which he lived was not a pretty place. 3,500 years ago, people were sacrificing their children to Moloch, and war and pillage were commonplace features of everyday life. Yet Jacob believed that very world to be on the threshold of the messianic era!
In the 33rd chapter of Genesis, the Torah describes Jacob’s encounter with Esau. Many years earlier, Jacob had fled to Haran because his brother wished to kill him; now he returns, believing that Esau is ready for a reconciliation. The brothers meet, they even hug and kiss, but Jacob realizes that the day has not yet come in which the sons of Isaac can live together in harmony. So he says to his brother: “Please, go on ahead. I will follow slowly, according to the pace of the work before me and the pace of the children, until I will come to my lord to Seir.”
Esau goes, but Jacob never does make it to his brother’s mountain kingdom; he settles in Hebron and, more than thirty years later, moves to Egypt, where he spends the final seventeen years of his life. So when, asks the Midrash, will Jacob make good on his promise to come to Seir? In the days of Moshiach, when, as Obadiah prophesies, “The saviors will ascend the mountain of Zion to judge the mountain of Esau.”
In other words, Jacob initiated his encounter with Esau only because he believed that the messianic era was at hand. Had Esau been ready for a true reconciliation, this, in Jacob’s view, would have ushered in the state of divine goodness and perfection that is the purpose and end goal of G‑d’s creation.
There is a lesson in this, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to each and every one of us. Jacob knew that his particular mission in life was to actualize the enormous positive potential locked within his externally wicked brother. He also knew that the moment he achieved this, the entire world would be transformed for the better.
If you want to create a nuclear explosion, all you need to do is split a single atom. That will set in motion a chain reaction in billions of other atoms, and transform the face of the earth over an area of many square miles.
In the same way, we have each been allotted our own “portion of the world”—the material resources we possess; the talents and capabilities with which we have been endowed; the circle of family members, friends and colleagues with whom we interact and whom we influence. Transforming the nature of reality in our own slice of the world will transform the nature of reality in the entirety of G‑d’s creation.
Yes, feeding that one child will mitigate the hunger of every hungry child in the world. Saying that one kind word will soften every insult uttered on the face of the earth. Doing that one good deed will nullify all the evil in the universe. Because the world is one, and you are the world.