With Simhat Torah we begin again our yearly reading of the Torah and the supreme act of creation. A well-known mishna in Tractate Sanhedrin reads: “Therefore a single human being was created [at first] to teach you that anyone who causes a single human being to perish is considered by Scripture as if he had destroyed an entire world, and anyone who preserves a single human being is considered by Scripture as if he had saved an entire world.”
The context of this teaching is instructing witnesses in a capital case. The judges are to say to them: “You should know that capital cases are not like civil cases. In civil cases, the witnesses [who testify to hearsay or conjecture] can make restitution and be absolved, but in capital cases, the blood of the person [found guilty] and the blood of his descendants [yet to be born] are attributed to the witnesses until the end of time.”
How do we know that this is true? The rabbis were close readers of Torah, and the Mishna explains: “For this is what we find concerning Cain when he killed his brother, ‘Your brother’s blood [damei, plural form] cries out….’ The Torah does not say dam [singular], but damei, meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants.”
There are two incredibly important lessons we can derive from this passage. The first is that each individual human being is unique and therefore of infinite worth. In fact, the Mishna teaches that each individual is obligated to say, “The world was created for my sake.”
Because modern Western society recognizes the importance of the individual, it may be difficult to recognize just how radical this statement actually is. However, at the time of the Mishna, almost 2,000 years ago, indeed until the last few hundred years, only some individuals — royalty, nobility, the wealthy, and high-ranking clergy — were valuable. The vast majority of humanity was considered insignificant by their “betters.”
If this were not enough, there is a second lesson here — namely, actions have consequences, often far beyond the immediate results. The witnesses were to be warned to be very careful that they did not cause the death of an innocent person even through honest error, for by doing so they would also cause the death of his potential descendants until the end of time. The man standing accused might appear to be of little value, but who can say what his children and children’s children might have become.
This is, of course, true as far as it goes, but it can and should be extended beyond the negative. Just as harm done today can reverberate forever, so too do acts of goodness have the power to change lives we know nothing about. Rabbis often report being approached by an adult who says, “I want you to know that what you said to me at my bar mitzva changed my life,” yet the rabbi has no recollection of what was said and may not even recognize the speaker. It’s humbling to see the results of unintended good.
And it’s not just rabbis. Rabbi Neil Kurshan, in his book Raising Your Child to Be a Mensch, writes about the profound impact it made on him when his mother took him, then six, along with her when she brought a food basket to the home of a poor family before Thanksgiving.
Parents, teachers, coaches, a shopkeeper who takes a chance and gives a teenager a job, a neighbor who steps in and helps out an overwhelmed single mother, the cop who takes a kid about to go bad under his wing — all those people who perform apparently small acts of caring and kindness change lives. And those whose lives have been changed often go on to change other lives as well.
Just as Cain’s act of murder would extend to the end of time, so too do the acts of those who treat others well touch children and children’s children until the end of time.
The world was created for my sake — and that means that whatever I do, no matter how insignificant it may seem, can change the world.