The rabbi and the cobbler: Meeting our moral responsibilities within a wordly web of relations

Indra's net
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On the web of life, every act has effects and side effects, including the act of by standing. Frances Moore Lappé writes:

Since interdependence isn’t a nice wish, it is what is , there can be no single action, isolated and contained. All actions create ripples — not just downward through hierarchical flows but outward globally through webs of connectedness. And we never know what those ripples might be. Beneath our awareness, perhaps, we are coming to realize that our acts do matter, all of them, everywhere, all the time. . . . Every choice we make sends out ripples, even if we ’ re not consciously choosing. So the choice we have is not whether, but only how, we change the world.

Practical wisdom prompts us to address the question, “ And then what? ” before taking any action. At the same time, it marshals the moral courage to act. Acting responsibly in the face of uncertainty is the ethical challenge. We are all world changers. The question is whether we can become wise, just, and loving ones.

A story about an old Jewish rabbi nicely underlines the challenges in meeting our moral responsibilities within a worldly web of relations. A usually temperate and kind-hearted cobbler had libeled his neighbor, a grocer. He spread gossip that painted the merchant in a very unflattering way. The cobbler came to regret his unkind words but could not bring himself to face his victim, so he sought counsel from the village rabbi, who lived up the hill. The rabbi heard the cobbler’s story and sensed his remorse. “Take a pillow from your bedroom,” the rabbi said. “Go to your rooftop, rip the pillow apart, and throw the feathers into the wind. Then come back to see me in three days. ” The man was befuddled by the advice, but dutifully returned to his house, climbed to his roof pillow in hand, and carried out the strange request.

Three days later, he walked back up the hill to see the revered teacher. “I did exactly as you suggested, Rabbi” the cobbler reported. “Is all forgiven now?” “Not quite,” said the rabbi. “Go now and gather all the feathers, and bring them to me.” The cobbler was aghast. “That is impossible,” he remonstrated. “They have been scattered to the four winds. There is no telling where they might be by now. ” The rabbi looked at him sternly yet kindly. “ Indeed,” he said. “And so it is with your unkind words. They can never be retrieved, and who knows what evil they continue to do. Now go and make amends to the grocer. ”

The rabbi was practically wise and a builder of community. Every action, both virtuous and vicious, enters a web of relationships. Its effects ripple out in every direction. As daunting as this moral reality may be, it is also empowering. The beneficial effects of our virtuous endeavors also may resound indefinitely. For better and worse, our deeds constitute our legacy to life. The ethics of interdependence celebrates this fate and challenges us to make every act count.

Excerpt from Indra ’ s Net and the Midas Touch, Living Sustainably in a Connected World, Leslie Paul Thiele, The MIT Press, 2011


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