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Small Things

Why not dwell on the big things, the broad picture, the much more exciting value system of Judaism? Why the concentration on small things?


Rabbi Berel Wein

Kislev 5768
We like to thing of life as being composed of big things - career changes, medical issues, political decisions that may have far reaching consequences for us, family and financial decisions, etc. - and small things - shopping, the post office, eating lunch, doing the everyday things that make up most of our life’s activities. People imagine that their lives are guided and judged solely by the big things in life. But the truth is that it is the small things in life that define us. Our father Yaakov crosses the river to salvage pachim ktanim - small things. He will wrestle with the angel over these small things. The Torah’s message is clear - the true values in life many times lie in the small things of life. Rashi mentions in his commentary to the parsha of Eikev that the Torah warns us to be careful of the "small" things - the mitzvoth that one would be tempted to step upon with one’s heel because of their "unimportance" in the big scheme of things. The Torah seems to be preoccupied with the small things in life. The many mitzvoth that deal almost exclusively with small things - blessings when eating, kashruth details, times of prayer, the minutiae of Pesach and the laws of family purity and other such rituals and laws. The great volumes of rabbinic responsa over the ages, the all encompassing law books of Rambam and Shulachan Aruch and their successors until today, all seem to dwell on small, everyday, almost mundane matters. Why not dwell on the big things, the broad picture, the much more exciting value system of Judaism? Why the concentration on small things?

History and life show us the importance of small things. High sounding values and theories are difficult to communicate from one generation to the next. Even nationalism, Marxism, pacifism and other then thought of as being lofty ideals were unable to meet the challenge of changing times and circumstances and continue in later generations. The Torah wisely taught us that great ideas, big things, are only lasting if communicated through small things, everyday behavior, rituals of rote, good habits if you will. By performance of the everyday mitzvoth of life, the values that they represent, the great and noble ideas that guaranteed the slow progress of civilization throughout the millennia become real with a possibility of their becoming realized. Without the small things the great things fade and disappear. There arise later generations who know not Yosef - who do not believe that the great things have any relevance in their lives since they are essentially not a part of their daily everyday lives. It is the small things in life that carry along the great things and transmit them over time and place. That is why the Torah is seemingly so preoccupied with small things. It knows that otherwise the big things that it represents, harmony, serenity, charity, human perfection and a just society, will never be achieved. Thus the Torah teaches us that the path to accomplish great things lies in the daily repetition of small things and that these small things contain the secret of human holiness and uniqueness.

The non-observant "pluralistic" streams of Judaism are learning this lesson the hard way. The hemorrhaging of Jews assimilating, intermarrying has had far reaching and deleterious consequences. Tikun olam - perfecting the world is a noble Jewish value and cause. But operating on its own it really has no relevance to one’s everyday life and behavior since it has no framework in which to so operate. If it is part of the structure of ritual, of blessings, prayer, avoidance of slander, giving charity daily and other examples of the fulfillment of God’s commandments and Jewish tradition then the lofty becomes more attainable. Without the daily requirements of Jewish behavior and tradition, the big things become completely lost in the cacophony of sound and noise that is our daily existence. The great business executives whose futures lie in the next quarterly earnings statement rarely have time to think about tikun olam. However, if they would have to interrupt their busy day every day for the mincha prayer service, then the concept of tikun olam enunciated in that very mincha service could perhaps become more meaningful and relevant in one’s life and decisions - even business decisions. Praying the mincha service is one of the small things in life. But it like all of the other mitzvoth it is the primary guarantor of transmitting the values and goals of Judaism onward to later generations and differing circumstances. So my friends, in reality there are no small things in life.
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