I remember being a teenager out with some girlfriends at a restaurant, and seeing them pocket packs of gum. My friends made a game for themselves of stealing small things from stores and from the pay counters of restaurants. I didn’t do it. When I asked them why they did it (since I knew they were not poor and could afford to buy the things they took, they told me that they did it for the fun of it—it gave them a kind of thrill to get away with it. I thought about that, and thought about why I didn’t want to do it, and realized that it went beyond the fear of getting caught (although I did have that fear). But it was something else.
Later I discussed this with a young rabbi who led a youth group I belonged to, and he gave me a good reason why I didn’t want to do it.
“Do you want to live in a world where people steal from each other?” he asked.
“No” I said.
“Well, people do steal from others and ordinarily there is not much that you can do about it. But there is one thing you can do. You can be a person who doesn’t steal. And in that way you are helping to make the world a place where people do not steal from each other.” The Talmud teaches the importance of the individual in the world.
I liked that explanation very much. It made a great deal of sense to me.
Later I heard the quote, attributed to Ghandi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Regardless of the controversy over whether or not Ghandi ever said it, I take it to be an apt aphorism representing that lesson I learned as a teen.