Judaism commands us to serve. Our religion has a wonderful history of teaching and learning, of thinking, talking, and sometimes even arguing. But in Judaism, introspection is never meant to replace action. It is meant to prepare us for doing what must be done. As the sage Shamai put it: “Say little and do much.”1 We are taught to understand that no deed should be dismissed as inconsequential. No task is trivial. Says the Talmud: “Every little sum given to charity combines with the rest to form a large sum.”2
Our American heritage urges us to serve as well. Theodore Roosevelt commented: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
In today’s world, where does Roosevelt’s wisdom point us? Where is the arena he talks about? In my view, the arena is all around us. All the world’s a moral stage, and through service, all men and women help to determine whether the story that’s told will be one of tragedy or triumph. Age, race, or religion do not limit our ability to contribute. If anything, they energize us.
It can be tempting, in this world of different problems and perspectives, to choose to disengage oneself from action, but all of us have a duty to build a better country. Preserving and protecting America is not just the job of police, emergency management workers, and public health professionals; it’s the job of all of us-of individual American citizens. And the way we do that is through service: small acts, medium-sized, and big acts. Every time we convert good will into good works-whether it’s by tutoring or mentoring a child, feeding someone hungry, building a house, or otherwise addressing a problem that’s bigger than ourselves-we strengthen the fabric of the country.
The extraordinary opportunity and honor I was given in the 2000 Presidential campaign only deepened my feelings about public service. It reinforced my basic faith in the goodness and tolerance of the American people; it strengthened my belief that there is an important role for idealism in public life and my conviction that each individual can make a contribution to a better society. As an American and a Jew, I felt privileged to break a historic barrier.
Don’t shy away from an opportunity to make a difference for fear of the risks, whether it is through public service or reaching out to the less fortunate in your community. Every contribution is meaningful, because when you renew and reaffirm your citizenship through service, you lead others to do the same-whether you know it or not.
The most powerful force in society is the incredible pull of human example as it brings out our own best values. It encourages us to do what, deep inside our souls, we already know is right. Society doesn’t benefit when good people stay out of the fray. We benefit when those with good hearts and good ideas get into the arena. I have no doubt that there are many of you who qualify.
1. Ethics 1:15
2. Bava Bathra 9b