“Every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’”
BT Sanhedrin 37b
A few weeks ago, I came across a book of Native American wisdom and encountered a saying by Big Elk (1770-1853), the chief of the Omaha Native Americans. Big Elk lived at a time of hardship and transition for his tribe. Foreigners threatened to take his land, and the Sioux were a warring tribe against his. But the biggest danger he faced was small pox, which had come to America via Europeans and was a rampant cause of death among Native Americans. Big Elk needed to give his people a sense of hope and perspective on managing a difficult past and having strength to face the future. Here is what he told his tribe:
“Do not grieve. Misfortunes will happen to the wisest and best of men. Death will come, always out of season. It is the command of the Great Spirit, and all the nations and people must obey. What is past and what cannot be prevented should not be grieved for…Misfortunes do not flourish particularly in our lives – they grow everywhere.”
No one can escape the clutches of death nor will excessive mourning bring anyone back. Sometimes we believe that we are the only ones to suffer, but misfortune is not ours alone. We share it. It grows everywhere.
Contrast this to a fascinating legend in the Talmud about the sage Hanina ben Dosa:
“Hanina ben Dosa was walking on the road when rain fell upon him. He said: ‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is comfortable and Hanina is suffering. The rain stopped. When he came to his house, he said: ‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is suffering [for lack of rain] and Hanina is comfortable. The rain returned” [BT Yoma 53b].
Rather than accept the ways of the world, Hanina asked that they be manipulated to suit his own needs. He was willing to forgo the benefits of rain for others simply to ensure his own personal comfort. He only asked that the rain return when he got to the shelter of his own home. If this is not narcissism, what is?
And yet, we read in another passage of Talmud excerpted above that the world is created for our own individual benefit. “And the King of Kings the Holy One Blessed Be He minted every person with the stamp of Adam And not one of them is the same as his fellow For this reason, every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’” If the world was created for each of us, then Hanina did nothing wrong in praying for his own comfort at the expense of the rest of the world.
Talmud commentators were obviously troubled by Hanina’s audacious request and tried to soften it. One said that Hanina had no fields as a poor man, and could not, therefore, empathize with the suffering of his fellow farmers who needed rain for their sustenance. Another claims that Hanina was not asking God to change the world for him but rather making an observation about the world. Something that can be good for almost everyone can be bad for us and vice-versa.
It would be interesting to have Hanina ben Dosa in conversation with Big Elk. Big Elk may have told Hanina to man up and get an umbrella. Hanina may have told Big Elk that only those who really believe in their uniqueness will change the world and Big Elk should be careful not to encourage people to resign themselves to suffering. If you really believe that the world was created for you, then you also become a better custodian of it. You have greater responsibility for it. You have the power to change and improve it.
In this story, God listens to Hanina not because he accepted the perspective of the world but because he believed that he had a right to be comfortable and dignified. Not that the world had to serve him but that he had the power to change the universe. This perspective does not obligate us less when it comes to being stewards of the universe but obligates us more.
What would you do differently if you believed that you could really change the world?