Princess Diana and the Significance of Small Deeds

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

All content is provided courtesy of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which has been established with a mission to promote the timeless and universal wisdom of Rabbi Sacks zt”l as a Teacher of Torah, a Moral Voice, and a Leader of Leaders.

"Therefore, let us remember what Princess Diana's sudden and tragic death has taught us, the power of our next act to tilt the moral balance of the world. The good we do does live on after us, and has more in it of eternity than wealth or power or beauty or fame."

On Rosh Hashanah God judges the whole world and decides on their fate for the coming year. It is as if the world has become a courtroom. God Himself is the Judge. The shofar announces that the court is in session, and we are on trial, giving an account of our lives. If taken seriously, this is a potentially life-changing experience. It forces us to ask the most fateful questions we will ever ask:

  • Who am I?

  • Why am I here?

  • How shall I live?

  • How have I lived until now?

  • How have I used God’s greatest gift: time?

  • Whom have I wronged, and how can I put it right?

  • Where have I failed, and how shall I overcome my failures?

  • What is broken in my life and needs mending?

  • What chapter will I write in the Book of Life?

Anyone who wishes to live a life with meaning will find themself asking these or similar questions. A thinking and reflective person will address them more often than once a year. Rosh Hashanah ensures that even someone for whom introspection does not come naturally will still address these questions, and consider the answers to them, every year on the day that encourages the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh (self-accounting/ introspection) when we stand in the presence of God and consider our lives.

In his Hilchot Teshuvah, Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, sets out the law that on Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar. And then, immediately afterwards, he says the following strange and striking thing. Lefichach, therefore, “every person should regard themself as if he or she, and indeed the whole world, were equally balanced between good and evil, and the next act we do will tilt the balance of the world. If we do one wrong act, we tilt the scales towards guilt. If we do one right act, we tilt the scales towards innocence. Our next act will affect the fate of humanity.”

We are a people who believed that beauty lies not in monuments of stone but in simple human gestures, small deeds, a chessed here, an act of tzedakah there. One mitzvah, said the Rambam, performed out of love, is enough to earn us a share in the World to Come. One harsh word can wreck a life. One kind word can help us to rebuild it. The shofar on Rosh Hashanah is sending us a message, says Maimonides, about the infinite significance of small deeds

Few people in our lifetime embodied this idea more than Diana, Princess of Wales, and in so doing gave new life to many lonely and forsaken people. For she, more than most, reminded us of the importance of values we speak of daily but sometimes forget to act upon. She knew that we are called on to heal the broken-hearted and minister to their wounds. She reminded us of the need to bring justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. She knew that we must support the fallen and bring healing to those who are sick. And there were times when her greatness lay in her humility, in the quiet acts of kindness, the hospital visits at night, the gestures of compassion far from the blaze of publicity.

Perhaps most of all she was a reminder of our humanity, that strange mixture of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, strength and weakness, noble deeds and occasional errors, and of the choices each of us must make. There were times when she expanded our moral horizons by raising great issues and championing unfashionable causes. And there were times when she taught us the simplest lesson of all, that a smile or a visit, a human gesture of concern, can make a difference to people’s lives because it lets them know that they are not alone. And so, remembering her life, we give thanks for the good she did, the friendship she offered, the hope she gave and the lives she touched.

We know, contrary to Shakespeare’s words in Julius Caesar, that the good we do lives after us, while the bad is often interred with our bones. We know that better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the delights of the World to Come, that even a brief life, tragically cut short, is better than no life at all. And we know, in those moving words of Kohelet, that “the dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to the God who gave it”, that this life is not the end and that the human spirit is bound in the bonds of eternal life.

Therefore, let us remember what Princess Diana’s sudden and tragic death has taught us, the power of our next act to tilt the moral balance of the world. The good we do does live on after us, and has more in it of eternity than wealth or power or beauty or fame.

Daily Goals:
The fleeting nature of life can lead to depression and a sense of nihilism and emptiness, or conversely it can inspire a search for meaning, and an aspiration to make every minute and every day count. Rosh Hashanah and Judaism in general encourages the second approach. These are days of reflection and introspection when we stand in the presence of God and acknowledge how short and vulnerable life really is, and how little time we have here on earth. There is no time to waste to become the very best people we can be! A single act of kindness can earn us our share in eternity.

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