How To Actually Change The World


That was a big word a few years ago, wasn’t it?

The word rang through the country, shook us all up, got us all excited, or got some of the others angry.

Since then, we’ve all been a bit disappointed with how that all worked out.

But that dream in this country, that at some point, some big change, some huge sweeping movement, will come and change everything still pervades.

We’ve got those Occupy folks.  The people who want (can we use past tense with them yet?) to fight for the 99% and liberate us from the 1%.

Then there are those Tea Partiers, right?  They do something, don’t they?

And then there’s the push for gay marriage, and controlling guns, and I think someone wants to go to war with Iran, and I dunno, I guess a few other things.

Point is, people want to shake things up.  They want to tear things down, then bring them back up to the way they imagine them.

And for each one of these movements, there’s a leader (or leaders).  The kind of person who stands in front of the crowd and yells out, “Change!”

Or, “Revolution!”

Or, “Hope!”

And other such inspiring, big, huge, enormous words.

These leaders are on the web, in print, and on TV.  Others are inspired by them.  Moved even.  They cry when they see their leaders step on stage.  They share all their Facebook updates, consume everything they say, soaking up their every line.

You know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a world leader like Obama or someone leading chants down on the streets of Occupy, to be a hero in this country means one thing: you fight for big changes.

These leaders are seen as projections of their own self-image: revolutionaries who are fighting for the good of mankind.  People can’t help but be inspired by them.  They imagine that these people are following the tradition of people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi.  Freedom fighters.

But here’s the thing: these great leaders, these people everyone love to cry over, that we all admire…

They’re the last people we should be following.

Because those people, however much their cause is good or justified… if their whole life revolves around big things, if all they care about is creating a revolution, if that’s their entire identity…

Then you can’t trust them.

Let me repeat that…

You cannot trust a person who only cares about the “big things”.

Because a person who only cares about such things could be a good person or a bad person.  But you’ll never know.

Because a person does not automatically become good if they fight for good.  A person like that could be pure evil, doing it just for the attention.  They could be manipulating circumstances for their own benefit.  You don’t know that person’s inner life, all you see is their big fights.

In other words, fighting for something objectively good does not automatically make someone actually good.  And a leader who is fighting for these things could very well be a scoundrel.

Because, at the end of the day, the big things in this world need to be changed, but they only need to be changed for something deeper, something truer:

The small life.  The life underneath the surface.  The life that we don’t advertise.

How I treat my wife.  How much of my life is devoted to spirituality.  How hard I work to improve myself every day.

Those are the ways I should be judged.

Those things are the only things in life that really matter.

Everything else is… something else.

All this revolutionizing and this changing, those are just the burdens we have to deal with because the world isn’t perfect.  They’re necessary, but fighting for them doesn’t mean squat unless we’re fighting for them because they’re a means to making our smaller lives easier so we can do more real good.

Civil rights don’t mean anything in and of themselves unless the people who are given those rights do something good with them.

A revolution is a waste of time if it isn’t used to facilitate our own inner growth and the growth of those around us.

And if all someone talks about, writes about, is the means, (that is, those huge revolutions and changes) then there’s a damn good chance they don’t care about the ends.

And that’s why you can’t trust those people.  Because while it might be possible they’re doing things for the ends, you’ll never know.

And let’s all be honest with ourselves here: they probably aren’t or we would know.

The only person I would trust with those big answers, those big ideas of revolution would be someone that focuses on the miniscule.  The tiny.  The microscopic.

The truly great Jewish leaders, from Avraham to Moshe to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have always reminded us that changing the world start with changing ourselves.  Turning ourselves inside out, and being good people to those around us.  Not only that, they were living examples of that ideal.  That’s why they were true leaders.

And, of course, Avraham, Moshe, the Rebbe… these leaders changed the world in ways we can’t even imagine.

Not only that, their changes have lasted, and not fallen apart like so many other revolutions.

Because at the end of the day, a revolution that isn’t rooted in the microscopic is just hot air, and a leader who only cares about the large things in life isn’t really a leader.

But if our revolutions are rooted in the small… if our leaders are in touch with the microscopic… well… then we’ll really change the world.





16 responses to “How To Actually Change The World”

  1. Stefani B. Avatar

    Wow, what a cynical perspective. It’s cynical to assume that movement-leaders (I’ll be general, although you seemed to be more focused on liberal movements) are doing it for attention. And it’s l’shan hara to put forth the accusation, without ANY evidence that these people are advocating for big change because they don’t engage in micro-level action as well. As to the notion that spiritual leaders are inherently more trustworthy? I think that’s been disproven by the number of abuse scandals (sexual, financial, etc.) in both the Jewish and Christian communities. Quite a broad brush you’re painting with! Tell me, specifically, WHY I shouldn’t trust specific individuals. Don’t make blanket statements built on fallacious arguments.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      “It’s cynical to assume that movement-leaders (I’ll be general, although you seemed to be more focused on liberal movements) are doing it for attention.”

      Never said that. My point is that you can’t trust them because without knowing WHY they are doing what they’re doing, you can’t trust they’re doing it for the right reasons.

      “And it’s l’shan hara to put forth the accusation, without ANY evidence that these people are advocating for big change because they don’t engage in micro-level action as well.”

      Again, didn’t say that. In fact, I said the exact opposite. If someone is fighting for big change AND engages in micro-level action (and considers the micro more important) then we TOTALLY should follow them. That’s why I gave the examples of Ghandi and MLK. I’m not arguing against ALL people that want to change things. It’s just that we need to know who to follow.

      And your point is totally accurate when it comes to those religious leaders. If they’re doing it for the wrong reasons, they’re even worse than a secular leader. My point was about TRULY spiritual leaders, not just people that use it for their own gain.

      1. Boruch S. Avatar
        Boruch S.

        I enjoy your point, I just seem to be having a problem with how you got there. I personally don’t care what a leader (or anyone) does in their personal life, as long as they get the job done. As an example, former director of the CIA, General David Petraeus, resigned from office due to an extramarital affair he was having. Information got leaked and a scandal was born. Should I really care about what’s going on in his personal life? What does his personal life have to do with his job? Sure, he’s not the best husband around, but maybe he was the greatest CIA director of all time! Now we lost all his experience, intelligence and strategic expertise simply because of an affair? That seems ridiculous to me. As long as a leader can lead, as long as he can inspire and take control and do whatever it is a leader needs to do, he can be a secret bank robber for all I care. A leader can be just an image, just an icon, just a symbol of change and that’s ok with me.
        I think it’s ridiculous to judge a leader by his personal beliefs or private life. I think it’s more appropriate to judge a leader by his ability to lead.

        Just as a personal example, I found so many of my friends voted for President Obama because he is cool, because he is funny, because he can dance, because he is nice, because he cares, because he is down to earth and just “gets it.” It’s high time we got someone who’s willing to change!, they say. We need someone with hope! But when I ask them which specific policies they’re interested in changing, or which problems need fixing, or how will Obama’s economic views help our economy, they have no answer. They vote for him because of his personal belief/personal life and not on what’s important-his ability to lead, his ability to do the job. That’s just an example, but the point is when it comes to leadership positions, personal life should be much lower on the list of priorities/qualifications.

        “You cannot trust a person who only cares about the “big things”.

        Because a person who only cares about such things could be a good person or a bad person. But you’ll never know.”

        This part was a bit confusing. You can’t trust a person to do what exactly? What does being good or bad have to do with it?

        As I understood it your point was that You Must Be The Change You Want To See In The World, and I think that’s truly inspiring. I just like to nitpick 🙂

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          AGREED! Seriously. I think that there’s a misconception about this piece (and it’s clearly my mistake since everyone seems to have interpreted it the way you are).

          I didn’t mean to imply that a person should be perfect. Either in the macro or the micro levels. Of course, a person making mistakes doesn’t disqualify them from leadership, G-d forbid, or we wouldn’t have any leaders, amiright?

          This isn’t about personal lives or about how they conduct themselves. This is a question of priorities. Really what I was trying to say (and maybe I should have just said it instead of trying not to offend) was that there are certain people whose priorities clearly revolve ONLY around the big things. In other words, the small things (ie life) don’t enter into the equation for them. They see these revolutions, these changes, as ends unto themselves.

          A good example of this is a “professional activist”. A person who actually defines him or herself as an activist, in the sense that they see this as a full time job. Such a person THRIVES off the fact that they want to change the world. Such a person would, in actuality, be disappointed if his or her revolution succeeded because it would mean that the fight would be over.

          So basically, this whole thing isn’t about perfection, or a leader’s personality, or even how good of a person they are. The point is simply this: WHY are they fighting? What motivates them to make this change? For all I care, the person could be a complete wreck, as long as the person’s priorities are in place.

  2. disqus_AwNb821laA Avatar

    this didn’t make very much sense.

  3. isaacson Avatar

    Thank you for this, I hope to use it as reference in my forthcoming dvar torah on Shavuos on the importance of smallness.

  4. Kady Avatar

    Maybe the idea shouldn’t be that we need to CHANGE the world as though we have the answer — but simply return to the world. In the same way that we shouldn’t try to change ourselves, but return to our true selves.

  5. Tzipporah La Fianza Avatar

    I’m having some level of trouble feeling this one, Elad. I think I get what you’re saying… but before I jump to conclusions and give you my own thoughts, would you mind explaining this line for me?

    “Civil rights don’t mean anything in and of themselves unless the people who are given those rights do something good with them.”


    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      That may have sounded more extreme than I meant it to sound. The point wasn’t to imply that there shouldn’t be civil rights, G-d forbid, but that they’re largely useless if they aren’t taken advantage of. In other words, there needs to be a larger goal beyond just rights.

      I talked about this a bit more in my blog post about gay marriage.

      1. Tzipporah La Fianza Avatar

        Okay, I think I get the point you are trying to make, but I’m not sure that it’s conveying properly (unless I’m making that assumption.) Civil rights aren’t just about gay rights. It’s about the rights of every human. It’s about the blacks having the right to a free life, it’s about Jews having the right to practice our religion… the list goes on. Civil rights mean that each human (or in this case, American) has these rights, unless they give due reason for them to be taken away by breaking the law of the land. Making sure we all have those rights is our job as a nation, but whether they put those rights to “good use” is their individual fight to have.

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          Agreed! But for each group fighting for those rights, they need to ensure that the leaders they choose embody both a macro and micro level of creating their revolution.

          1. Tzipporah La Fianza Avatar

            I think there is a problem with leaders coming AFTER a movement. So often a movement starts small and then some ego-crazed person stands up and tries to become the movement and then subsequent followers (who feel they need a leader) jump in line.
            The fact is that most people are sheep and we want a leader. The Jews want Moshiach so we can relate to that. You are right that people need to look deeper into their leaders, but it’s often a very cloudy view. By the time they are the leader, it’s not like you can just walk up to them as have a sit-down. yk? So what would be your solution to this?

  6. Rebecca Klempner Avatar
    Rebecca Klempner

    I was having trouble digesting this post until I got to:

    “The truly great Jewish leaders, from Avraham to Moshe to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have always reminded us that changing the world start with changing ourselves. Turning ourselves inside out, and being good people to those around us. Not only that, they were living examples of that ideal. That’s why they were true leaders.”

    That’s something we can all aspire to–change ourselves and our immediate environment.

  7. Ken Avatar

    I think your giving an imbalanced presentation of a truism. Obviously, doing good on an individual level, addressing personal spirituality, is good. That kind of change is good. But your essay implies that those that seek change on a larger scale are the enemies of genuine good. That is wrong.

    Just as you say that a person must seek good on a personal level to effect positive change, it is equally true that a person who focuses upon the personal level but who ignores social injustice is ineffective as an agent of change. I think the proper focus is a balanced focus. We are both individuals and members of community.

  8. Rivki Silver Avatar

    Somewhat on the topic, I recently had a very combative commenter on my blog who insulted me (and Orthodoxy) all in the name of “change.” Because she felt that since my way of life is harmful, she was entitled to be snarky and rude to me, to ostensibly get me to change, or get the world to change. That was the reasoning she shared on my blog.

    It’s a method I’ve noticed before, to be hostile and worked up about how evil and wrong the “other way” is, and to attack it, and whoever’s associated with it. I’ve seen it on blogs, on facebook, dealing with politics and religion, mothering and relationships. To try and “force” change by attacking.

    But it really won’t work. I mean, really. So I agree that only focusing on the big picture like “all religion is bad” or “capitalism is bad” or “social welfare is bad” or whatever, and only talking about it in grandiose terms, isn’t going to do much to exact change. But I do think that it’s important to have the big picture in mind when we are taking the necessary small steps. Also, change takes a long time, and sometimes the results won’t be evident for decades.

    Clearly, I need to do a blog post on this subject, too. I have a lot to say. Sorry for the mammoth comment! Interesting post.

  9. Stephen Salstrand Avatar

    Not sure why everyone is having a hard time with this one… it hit such a huge cord with me.

    In a nutshell, Elad is pointing out the fact that we set these “leaders” up on pedestals and aspire to be like them because they gave our acting society a stronger voice or they bolster the “healthy living” cause by passing regulation to put a hamper on steroid use in animals, etc… all the while, the people that benefit from that “cause” are still the same – speaking lashon hora, hating their brother, marital strife, etc.

    Bottom line:
    Don’t aspire to be like someone that gave you a tool for use… aspire to be someone that taught you how to use the tools already at your disposal to better yourself and others around you.

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