One Person Truly Can Change The World [Parshat Lech Lecha By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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He took him (Abraham) outside, and said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them … so will be your descendants.” – Gen 15:5

Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833 – 1896) was a Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, and armaments manufacturer. Although Nobel held 355 different patents, he is most well-known for the invention of dynamite and gelignite which made him incredibly wealthy.

In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, but a French newspaper published Alfred’s obituary instead! People always want to read their own obituaries, and Alfred got the chance eight years before he died … and he was not happy. The headline was “Le marchand de la mort est mort – The merchant of death is dead!” It continued:Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.

Alfred was really shaken by this sad synopsis of his life, and set about changing history. To do this he changed his will, leaving the bulk of his estate, about 250 million US dollars, to establish the Nobel Prizes. Four of the prizes are awarded for eminence in the sciences and literary works, while the fifth prize – the Nobel Peace Prize, is awarded to the person or society that “renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.”

What is fascinating about the Nobel Prizes, is that despite being only 0.2% of the world population, 20% of Nobel prize winners have been Jewish. Whatever the reason for that (put it down to chicken soup and kneidlach if you wish) this year is no exception, with a few more Jewish winners just added for Physics, Medicine and Chemistry. However, aside from their families and colleagues, most of those awards are usually quickly forgotten by the general public. The one award which always takes the imagination of the people is the Peace prize, given to someone who has contributed in some way to making the world we live in a more peaceful place; more tolerant, more loving, more human.

The publicising of the winner for this prize takes place Friday (after this piece has gone to print), but the signs are growing that the winner may be an inspirational young Pashtun woman by the name of  Malala Yousafzai  from Pakistan.

Malala is now world famous, known by her first name across the globe, symbolising the power of good over evil, and of peace over violence. Even if she does not win the prize, that will never change.

Malala, whose father had set up a school where girls could be educated, as well as boys, was shocked when the Taliban announced in 2008 that all female education had to stop. Aged only eleven, she knew she had to do something about it, and began blogging for BBC Urdu, and also speaking out in public. Her high profile role, despite being only a child, was also a death sentence, and one day on her way home from school Malala was picked out by name and shot in the head at point blank range; she was 14 years old.

By a miracle, this young woman survived with all her faculties, and now lives in the UK where she is trying to just be a normal school girl. Thursday she won the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize, and today she may win the Nobel Peace prize, so staying “normal” might be difficult, but given her track record so far, she has done an astoundingly good job. Just this week she left an interviewer speechless when she stated that if she would have had a chance to speak to her attacker, she would simply have wanted to tell him about the value of education, before allowing him to shoot her if he wished. Her deepest desire is the availability of education for all, and she expressed this in a powerful and confident address to the UN Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday, closing with, “One teacher, one child, one book and one pen can change the world!

It is people like this who remind us that one person truly can change the world, which is the theme of our Torah reading this week. Last week we met Avraham (Abraham) briefly, and this week he is told to leave his family and his home, to head for a distant land. Avraham lived in times when belief in an invisible G-d was nonsensical, yet he stood up proud and strong for what he believed in, and shared that belief with others. When everyone around him told him he was wrong,  Avraham gently persuaded them, one by one, that maybe he was right. Today, a few thousand years later, billions of people on this earth believe in that one invisible G-d.

Those who succeed in this world are often not those who just have good or even great ideas, but those who have the conviction to stick with those ideas when everyone else says they are impossible. Without those people, we would be so much the poorer, without flight, telephones, electricity, internet and so many more valuable inventions. Behind each invention, each medicine, each breakthrough you will find individuals, or teams of individuals, who invested enormous amounts of time, energy, health and personal assets, and who risked all their credibility in going against the popular opinion that, “it couldn’t be done.” In fact, many of these scientists were so keen to prove their theories that they used themselves as guinea pigs, causing themselves great harm and even death! (August Bier, Marie & Pierre Curie, JBS Haldane, Humphrey Davy and Daniel Alcides Carrión are just a few examples of that).

So as we read about Avraham this week, and how he risked everything to follow his beliefs, and share those with others, let’s take a few minutes to think about those values and traditions we have kept strong for thousands of years, and what we can do to keep them going for another thousand.  Shabbat Shalom.

 Rabbi Zalman Lent

Note: Malala’s surname is Yousafzai.  There are theories that the Pashtun people are of Jewish origin, from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Here is a quote from Wikipedia:  Joseph-Pierre Ferrier wrote History of the Afghans in 1858.  Ferrier was disposed to believe that the Afghans represented the Ten Tribes of Israel.  In support of his view he recorded, among others, a very significant fact: “When Nadir Shah marching to the conquest of India arrived at Peshawar, the chief of the tribe of Yousaf Zyes (Sons of Joseph) presented him with a Bible written in Hebrew and several other articles that had been used in their ancient worship and which they had preserved. These articles were at once recognized by the Jews who followed the camp.  So the presence of Bibles among Afghans show their Jewish origin.”


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