Susan Burton had hit the lowest point in her life. A struggle with alcohol and crack cocaine addiction led to a string of stints in prison. After her last release a prison guard said, “I’ll see you back in a little while.” Burton knew she needed to make some life changes. She entered rehab and began to piece together a new life.
Once on her feet, Burton found her purpose while working as a caregiver for elderly people. She felt so fulfilled by helping others that she conceived of a way to extend that help to the demographic closest to her heart: women recently released from prison. With her meager savings, she launched a program to help women like herself get their lives and careers headed in the right direction post-incarceration.
Burton is now the executive director of a program called, A New Way of Life, which has helped over 650 women transition from prison to a positive role in society. She does not claim to be more virtuous, elevated, or gifted than anyone else. It wasn’t those qualities that enabled her to found an organization based on social activism and outreach; it was simply a desire to help.
In the biblical chapter, Noach, the Creator informs Noah of his plans to destroy the world and wipe out the negativity that ran rampant. He gives Noah and his family a way out; they escape harm by building an ark and braving a fierce storm. But after the flood, Noah sees the destruction and weeps.
God is not sympathetic and quickly points out Noah’s lack of initiative. “Noah, I came to you before the flood to awaken in you the desire to beg for the world,” He says. “When I told you I would bring destruction upon the world and instructed you to make the ark, that is when you should have wept and prayed and begged for mercy for the world. Yet, you did not.”
Why didn’t he? It’s hard to imagine someone in Noah’s situation not feeling compassion for his community. Though misguided and fraught with negativity, his neighbors were about to meet their demise. Yet, how many of us would plead with the Creator on behalf of a fallen people? How many of us would dare to be so bold? The truth is, not many would. However, it’s not a lack of compassion that prevents most of us from stepping up. It’s a lack of confidence.
Michael Berg points out, "It was not that Noah did not care, but that he believed that he did not deserve to make a request of the Creator." He goes on to say, "Noah did not understand that even if we have no Light, so special claim to virtue, or even if we are evil, as long as we have a true desire to help another person, that desire will connect us to the Creator.” Once we decide to step up and make a difference, God backs us up by giving us everything we need to provide that help. We are wrong to assume that because we don’t hold any special talents, aren’t virtuous, or haven’t earned a lifetime of wisdom that we cannot bring more Light into the world. All we really need is a pure desire to help.
Susan Burton is an ordinary woman with a troubled past who chose to help, not because she has special talents, but because she felt the desire to act. Her desire to reach out to others and bring more Light into their lives, benefits not only the women in her program, but impacts the world at large. When we encounter someone in need, even if it is only a quick interaction or a recent introduction, it is our spiritual duty to be of assistance. We usually don’t and the reason again stems from our lack of confidence that we can truly help. The most important factor in making a difference, from a kabbalistic point of view, is our desire—not our social influence, talent, or wealth.
We are more powerful than we know. “You and I can save a person,” says Michael Berg. “You and I can save the world. We can do so by finding ways to awaken in ourselves a stronger and stronger desire to help others, knowing that it will be this desire alone—not our wisdom or spiritual connection—that will make the difference.”
Noah missed a great opportunity. Once he realized the imminent destruction the flood would cause, he could have acted. But he believed there was nothing he could do to stop it and resigned himself to following the Creator’s instructions dutifully. Many of us react to challenges similarly. Yet, it takes a shift in consciousness to realize that, like Noah, we always have options. The lesson for us lies here; never accept anything as final. Susan Burton certainly did not. When a door closed, she found a way to open another and in doing so, let more Light into the lives of others and the world. Let us always find a way to open doors with our desire.