The New Year has just begun, and after a destructive hurricane and the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., I find that many seasonal greetings are filled with heartfelt, prayerful wishes for a better year, rather than usual niceties.
My family and I recently volunteered, spending a Sunday cleaning up a debris filled marsh in Union Beach on the Jersey Shore. When we arrived, I was frankly overwhelmed by the post-hurricane sight awaiting us. Deflated, I wondered, "How can we even make a dent in this endless mess?" We were given work assignments: clearing paths to bring the garbage to the street, hauling garbage of every size, and deconstructing a house's deck which had broken off and had been deposited at the end of the marsh in someone's once beautiful backyard.
During the hours I worked side by side with many others, I realized the work was more tolerable, less overwhelming, when I focused on a finite task. I refocused my goal from clean up this whole area to clear the small patch in front of me. The work was dirty, cold and physical, but it was also extremely rewarding to know I could help. Each volunteer experienced a roller coaster of emotion as we gathered these pieces of strangers' lives. I left with a montage of images: debris from Staten Island, plastic everywhere, success at carefully deconstructing the deck, wedding photos lost in the mud, a toddler's snow boot now far from its owner.
Toward the end of our volunteer day, I thought of Rabbi Tarfon's teaching, Lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor, velo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimena -- "It is not your duty to complete the work; but neither are you free to desist from it" (Mishneh Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 2:16). Looking at the piles of garbage imbedded in mud, thinking about the endless healing needed after the hurricane, and still mourning the senseless shooting in Connecticut, I understood Rabbi Tarfon's words in a new light.
When we consider the great tasks in front of us, whether it is cleaning up after a hurricane or ending gun violence, we easily freeze not knowing where to start, because we can not be sure that we will see the end of our work. Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that engaging in the task is most important. I alone cannot clear an entire marsh; I alone cannot heal every broken heart; I alone cannot end gun violence. But I can work with others clearing a part of the marsh; I can support my friends and neighbors during hard times; I can add my voice to those who never want to witness senseless violence again.
Together we can make a difference in our world and, indeed, make it a better New Year.