Monday, August 01, 2005

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.

How so?

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.

21 Comments:

Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

According to the Rambam, when it says in Pirqey Avos to "treat a small mitzva as weightily as you would treat a big mitzva", the 'small mitzva' it's referring to is learning Hebrew. :-)

Mon Aug 01, 11:44:00 PM  
Anonymous shanna said...

I have this irresistible urge to put a tiny mortarboard on a goldfish's head. :)

Tue Aug 02, 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger fsgsf said...

Nice post ClooJew!! I will keep this comment "small" though.

Peace!
NJ from NJ

Tue Aug 02, 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Lvnsm27 said...

Excellent message and advice

Tue Aug 02, 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Eli7 said...

As a frum Jew, I'm often asked why I sweat the small stuff, why I care about all these seemingly unimportant details. But it's true that nothing really is small, despite others' perceptions.

Tue Aug 02, 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger brianna said...

Yeah with improvements it's best to fix the small stuff bit by bit. Because with the big stuff it's too eas to justify getting frustrated and quiting. And all that stuff adds up and makes a difference in your life whereas lists of failures are just depressing. :)

Tue Aug 02, 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger parcequilfaut said...

Just a reminder from the blood-donation queen over here...you can give blood up to 8 times a year.

If you're very brave, you can do the even more useful platelet/plasma donation as often as once a week. It takes longer.

Only 5% of the eligible populace donates. An even smaller fraction donates regularly.

/stops talking about fave do-gooderism

Tue Aug 02, 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger brianna said...

Wonder where I can donate blood. I really should now that I'm 18...

Tue Aug 02, 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jew Speak said...

cloojew,

Great post! You are very talented :)

- Jew Speak

Tue Aug 02, 09:17:00 PM  
Blogger Chai18 said...

thanks
you have no idea how much i needed that right now

Tue Aug 02, 10:48:00 PM  
Blogger TRW said...

I liked that a lot. Thank you.

Tue Aug 02, 11:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yasher Koach.

Wed Aug 03, 12:29:00 AM  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

Your posts are very succint and well- considered. A pleasure to read - and to think about.

Wed Aug 03, 05:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a rabbi whose wife recently introduced me to the renegade rebbetzin blog, through which I found this blog. While the renreb is perfect for my wife to relate to, I find your blog extremely thought provoking and inspiring. I actually read it each week before beginning to prepare my derasha. Keep up the great work.

Wed Aug 03, 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

G-d is in the details (don't remember who said it, but I heard the Good Rabbi use it once in a Devar Torah).

TRK

Thu Aug 04, 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger Jew Speak said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thu Aug 04, 09:15:00 PM  
Blogger Jew Speak said...

Also, we see that small things can have large ripple effects from the "Butterfly Effect." The "butterfly effect" proposes that a butterfly flapping it's wings in one area of the world can cause a tornado or some such weather event to occur in another remote area of the world. Edward Lorenz first analyzed the effect in a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences.

Thu Aug 04, 09:18:00 PM  
Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Interesting- something to think about.

Thu Aug 04, 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Shopaholic said...

Cloo- Great post! (as always)

Jew Speak-"Also, we see that small things can have large ripple effects from the "Butterfly Effect"

My father always told us that the business man's deal in hon Kong went well because we benched from a bencher and not by heart...

Fri Aug 05, 01:28:00 AM  
Blogger Alisha said...

Thanks for the chizuk, ClooJew -- it's a timely reminder for me.

Fri Aug 05, 01:24:00 PM  
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