It is statistically quite likely that a person on Planet Earth will be born, live, and die, without making much difference to the world around them. Indeed, to many people this almost seems to be the plan: they want to find the easiest or smoothest path from here to the grave.
Nevertheless, there are clearly at least some people who can – and do – make a difference, who leave this world better than they found it. This might be achieved through consideration for others, or through spreading ideas that help productively guide the choices that others make. Our heroes might do something that has never been done before, creating something new under the sun. Or they might be models for others to follow, exemplars of love or noble ideals. There are certainly more productive paths to choose from than there are living people!
But every single person who achieves such a positive result through their life will have something in common with every other person who also breaks out from the statistical norms: they consciously aim higher. They believe that they are capable of being more than the mere sum of their physiological parts.
Statistically speaking, of course, such a belief is foolish. Who am I to harbor the ambition that I – unlike the vast majority of the billions of people on this rock – can and will make a difference?
This is a perfectly reasonable question. When G-d first tells Moses to go to Egypt and save the people, Moses asks: “Who am I?” G-d is put in the ludicrous situation of explaining to a mere mortal that he needs to aim higher, that with G-d’s help he will become one of the most pivotal people in the history of the world. Despite the power imbalance, the argument was not an easy one to make! After all, Moses knew the score as well as anyone: up until that point, nobody in the world had every achieved such a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking.
This helps explain why, when Avram suffered a similar crisis of faith, the Torah tells us:
G-d took [Avram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And he continued, “so shall your seed be.”
The symbolism of this one verse opens it all up: G-d is telling Avram to step outside his mere physical self. Instead of connecting with the physical world around you, consider the possibility that you and your offspring will have a cosmic impact, not merely in numbers, but in every way in which the stars shine on the world, providing light and hope, dreams and spiritual experiences.
In other words, G-d is trying to help Avram – and we, his descendants – understand that we are capable of achieving things that are far, far beyond our physical bodies. For the Jewish people – and each and every one of us – the sky’s the limit. The only real limit is our mortality, which means we need to get going now.
I submit that this idea is at the heart of the success of Jews throughout the ages: we aim higher, because we believe that we are capable of achieving great things. And indeed, no people has done as much good (and perhaps as much bad (see Freud, Marx and Spinoza)) as the Jewish people throughout the history of the world, so far out of proportion to our population that it beggars belief.
We Jews dream big. But the goal is not merely that Jews should succeed: the stars are there, shining, for everyone. All of humanity is meant to dream in the stars, to set lofty ambitions, and to believe that we can get there.