In Praise of Small Things
With the period of the Three Weeks that culminate with the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple (Sunday, August 14, this year) upon us, it behooves us to reflect on our values and our behaviors and to see what we might due to improve ourselves as Jews and as human beings.
One of the strategies utilized in this effort is known as the kabbalah. No, we’re not talking about Madonna here. Without going into the etymology of the word, this kabbalah means a commitment—a commitment to do something different going forward, to better oneself in some fashion.
One might think that in order to foment a real spiritual awakening in oneself, that this commitment ought to be something spectacular. Perhaps one ought to fast every Monday and Thursday. Perhaps one ought to rise each day at dawn and recite the entire book of Psalms. Perhaps one ought to give fifteen or even twenty percent of his or her earnings to charity, rather than the traditional tithe.
Yet, we find that the great giants of Judaism, when looking to make such a kabbalah, always picked something seemingly small.
For example, many years ago, when the Intifada had first broken out in Israel and religious Jews were looking for ways to connect with G-d, Rav Elazar M. Schach, zt”l, the pre-eminent rabbi of the day, made known his latest commitment—to always recite the Grace After Meals from a text rather than by heart.
At first blush this seemed almost silly. What exactly was the big deal there? Couldn’t Rav Schach do better than that? What was he really “committing” himself to exactly?
But the Torah has always maintained that it is far better to commit to something small and keep your word than to commit to something larger and risk not doing it. So in that sense a small commitment is safer.
The larger point, however, is this: G-d likes the small stuff.
A commitment, even a small commitment—even the smallest commitment—is, nonetheless, a step in the right direction. G-d is less interested in how big that step is than in the actual creation of the step. When we make a small kabbalah, we are taking that step, we are announcing our intentions to move in a better direction, we are acknowledging our need for improvement and demonstrating a willingness to better ourselves.
We may not take these baby steps seriously, but G-d sure does.
By making an improvement in our behavior, even the smallest improvement, we are exercising our humanity. G-d gave people free will to choose between Good and Evil. He made no such accommodation for the plant world or the animal kingdom. A tulip cannot decide to make any adjustments in its daily routine. The tulip cannot do anything to “improve” its lot. It is a tulip and a tulip it shall remain.
Animals, as well, have no free will. True, an animal can be tamed and trained by humans; but the animal itself cannot wake up one morning and decide to be a charitable monkey, a more compassionate dog, a more studious goldfish. What separates us from the animals, from all of G-d’s other creations, is our ability to change on our own, to recast our destiny, to determine in our own minds who we want to become and then set the trajectory of our lives accordingly.
Speaking of trajectory:
When NASA sends up a spaceship, the trajectory they establish must be perfect. If the engineers calculating the angle of the launch are off by so much as an inch, the error will inflate to thousands of miles up in space. The same is true of our efforts to become better people, better Jews. The smallest adjustment in our behavior today has repercussions for our future—both in this world and the next—that are immeasurable.
So if you’re looking for improvement, small is beautiful. Commit to saying one blessing a day with concentration. Study as little as one verse of Torah before heading out to work. Give blood once a year. Put a penny in the pushka.
Do something small because, after all, in Judaism, there really is no such thing.