Don’t despair: Your efforts make a difference

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After weeks of tireless watering, I realized that my many tomato plants had yielded only a few tiny, wizened cherry tomatoes. In fact, my garden as a whole had very little to show for the gallons of water lovingly schlepped to it each day.

Perhaps it had to do with the drought, I considered, or maybe disease. Then I looked up to see a smug squirrel, tomato in hand, the culprit in this disappointing garden season.

A productive garden is the least of it. Haven’t we all had a moment when we pour ourselves into an effort we care deeply about, only to be left empty-handed and disappointed?

The search for significance in our lives transcends the ages. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. The Impressionists were shunned by the art establishment and saw success only much later. Even figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi – venerated in our time – did not see their endeavors come to fruition in their time.

We all search for some validation of our efforts in the world. Some signs that our life makes a difference. That a mitzvah done today makes tomorrow better. That the values we cherish are actually passed on to our children and grandchildren.

Sometimes we find satisfaction. Other times we do not. It is so easy to become discouraged. To be left with a nagging sense of purpose. To wonder, why do we bother? To think that our efforts do not matter or have lasting value.

One of our central biblical leaders also felt the pull of discouragement. Moses led our entire people from slavery to freedom to the promised land – he was no slacker, for sure. Psalm 90 is one of 11 psalms that begins “a prayer of Moses.” The psalmist pleads in the voice of Moses, u-ma’aseh yadeinu koneneihu – may the work of our hands endure. (Ps. 90:17)

Surely, thousands of years later, we know that Moses’ bequest to our people is rock solid. His legacy clearly does endure.

How incredible to realize that even Moses, in a dark moment, questioned the significance of his work in the world. Leading a kvetching band of Israelites in the desert for 40 years, with limited food and water, can certainly take a toll. Even great leaders wonder if their day-in and day-out strivings will have lasting value.

How true for each of us as well. Discouragement can creep in when we are addled by our failures, demoralized by pettiness and cowed by the sheer volume of our task.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel urged us not to succumb to such despair.

“Be sure that every little deed counts,” he counseled, “that every word has power, and that we do, everyone, our share to redeem the world, in spite of all the absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.”

The 90th Psalm ends with these words: “Establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, wondered why the phrase was repeated. His answer: Our actions may or may not advance positive and significant goals – we can hope, but there is never any guarantee. The words “u-ma’aseh yadeinu koneneihu” are repeated, he taught, to remind us that our actions themselves should have sweetness as we feel their inner significance in that moment.

Rashi too points out that this phrase is written twice: once for the work itself, and once for the blessings that come from that work.

We may not always see the actual benefit of our work in the world. Yet we can be mindful of its meaning to us, to our families and to our community. We can know that our efforts themselves are holy. That our strivings are part of a larger good, no matter what the outcome.

In that understanding, we gain the strength to rise each day and try again. We enter 5783 with the prayer that the work of our hands brings fulfillment to us and to all whose lives we touch.

SARAH MACK is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, in Providence.