This week two elections were certified where control of the state legislature came down to a single seat, and where the elections were decided by a single vote. If one single person had showed up to vote, control of the state’s legislature would have switched parties!
Why is this news? Because it feels so extraordinary. Because this kind of thing never happens, and for it to happen twice in one week feels truly exceptional. It illustrates that, despite how it usually feels, sometimes a single solitary vote, choice, or action can make a massive difference. We hear it every day — “even the smallest act can make a big difference,” but do we really believe it? We tend to downplay our individual power to have a major impact in the world, maybe because we think that gets us off the hook from trying to have an impact which, granted, can be exhausting
Perhaps the Rambam was acknowledging the difficulty in facing this reality when he felt the need to codify in the Mishnah Torah that “throughout the entire year, a person should always look at their deeds and those of the world as equally balanced between good and bad, such that their very next act might change both the balance of their life and that of the world.”
In other words, even if it’s hard, it’s a halachic imperative to have the mindset that we can make a difference, and that each of our actions matters.
We see that this week in a series of small, seemingly isolated actions taken by individuals that end up having a major impact on the story of the Jewish people as a whole:
- Yaakov favors his son Yosef, and gives him a “coat of many colors” (this makes the brothers jealous, and murderous).
- One day, Yaakov sends Yosef to check on his brothers as they are shepherding.
- Reuven, the oldest brother, convinces the others not to kill Yosef, but to put him in a pit.
- Yehudah, another brother, has the idea to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites.
- After being brought to Egypt and sold to the house of Potiphar, Yosef makes the choice not to give in to the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and ends up in prison.
- Yosef interprets the dreams of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, and as we’ll see in next week’s parsha, when the butler is free he remembers Yosef to Pharaoh when, later, he needs his dreams interpreted.
We’ll see these actions play out over the next few parshiot, as Yosef gains prominence in Egypt and eventually his entire family — all of the Israelites — wind up there, setting the stage for their enslavement and eventual redemption.
And it all started with a colorful coat.
The message from the parsha is clear: every action, no matter how small, can have an impact that reverberates into history. We can all make a difference. The Torah demands that we recognize that potential, and act accordingly.
Questions for the Shabbat table:
- Can you think of a time when your single action made a big difference?
- Can you think of a time when someone else’s single action made a big difference to you? Did you tell them?