Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon- ‘The Butterfly Effect’

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 3 October 2019

There is a story in Midrash about several people in a boat. One of them takes a drill and starts boring a hole in the bottom, just by his seat.

The others protest; ‘what are you doing?’

The one drilling answers, ‘What business is it of yours? Am I not drilling the hole under my own seat?’

The others reply, ‘But it is our business, because when the water comes in, it will sink the boat with all of us in it.’


The story is quoted to teach us communal responsibility, that the actions of one person effect the whole community. What may seem to one person to be a small insignificant hole, can be for others a sinking ship. Likewise, the small gesture of kindness we offer, can be a lifeline to those who receive it.


Our actions can ripple, and the outcome is often completely unknown to us, our very own butterfly effect. This phenomena in chaos theory reasons that a small change in one state can lead to a larger change in a later state. The concept gained its name from the notion that the small action of a butterfly flapping its wings can ultimately lead to a typhoon.


The theory gives a sense of connection, an idea that all things in the world are intricately linked. Whilst it is highly unlikely that the act of flapping a butterflies’ wings will lead to catastrophic weather conditions, it teaches us that small actions can act as a catalyst, an initial push for larger behaviours.


The reality is that the system is unpredictable. Seemingly stable things can transform when exposed to small influences, and yet, due to the chaotic nature of the universe we have no way of predicting what the outcome will be. Will a small thing cause a big impact, or have no effect at all?


So too with us in life. The things we do, and the ways in which we live could have no effect on the larger proceedings of the world, or the small flutters that we make could result in large movements, maybe even typhoons.

So, surely it is worth a try…


As we stand today at a threshold between the last year and the next, we are faced with a choice. Do we choose to act in our communities and speak out for the things we believe in, hoping that our individual actions will cause larger ripples in humanity?

Or do we feel disempowered, fearing that we are too small to impact the magnitude of problems in our current world?


With our newspapers constantly inundated with large-scale news of climate change, Brexit, the political breakdown of our country and threat of an impending election, it is easy to feel that the actions of the individual may not make a large difference. As we stand at this moment, we fear that even the loudest of voices will not make the smallest of dins.


But we are not powerless. Our actions can ripple, every small movement we make could make larger waves elsewhere. May this year be one where we act for good, where we become the change that needs to be seen in the world.


The rabbis of the Second Temple period theorised that there were 36 righteous people on whose shoulders the entire world exists. These 36, known as the lamed vavniks were the sustenance of the world, the people who defend the existence of humankind to God. If just one of them were to cease existing, then the entire world would come to an end.


But there is a catch. Those who are truly righteous do not know that is their destiny, they act with kindness from the depths of their souls. They do not aim to be heroes and in their humble nature they could not ever believe that they were one of the righteous who keep the world in balance. They could be here with us in this room, and we would not even know it. They could be you.


How would society look if everyone felt empowered to make a difference, if everyone felt that they had the potential to hold the existence of our world in the palm of their hands? How would we treat our families or friends or ‘the other’ if they could be the person restoring the balance of peace in this world? How would we treat ourselves if we were vital to the entire world’s existence?


Although there is no way of knowing if we ourselves are the Lamed Vavniks, may this year be the year in which we believe in ourselves and our potential to make a difference.  We read in Proverbs, ‘when the storm passes the wicked man is gone, but the righteous is an everlasting foundation.’ Midrash Tanchuma states, that even if there is only one righteous person among us we should all survive, for a righteous person is the foundation of the world.


This year may we no longer feel disempowered, too small to face the magnitude of problems in our world. Rather, may we know that each of our actions will ripple, that our small movements could lead to big waves. May we become leaders, raising our voices for what we believe in. May we become changemakers, willing to make small changes in our lives in the hope that it will encourage others to do so.


Ultimately, may we all believe in our own ability to be the righteous people at the foundation of this world. For perhaps if we believe in ourselves, it could be for our purpose that the entire world exists.