Small is the ‘old-new’ big

The Power of Stories Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Although he lived alone in a New York City apartment, Jacob Leibman was much beloved by his neighbors as a welcoming host for Jewish holidays. The only person who didn’t get along with Jacob was the overbearing new building owner, Mr. Block.

Sure enough, when Mr. Block discovered Jacob setting up a rooftop sukkah, he ordered its removal. The next day found Jacob in court where, waving a citation in his face, Mr. Block argued his case to the judge. In his defense, Jacob told the judge about the biblical festival of Sukkot and the obligation to build and celebrate in a sukkah. The judge deliberated. The tenant should be able to observe his weeklong holiday, and the sukkah would do no damage, but the law was on the owner’s side.

Turning to Jacob she ruled, “Building a rooftop sukkah is against city ordinances, so it must come down. I will give you exactly eight days to comply, and not a minute more.”

At first glance, this story appears to be about the justice system. But really it’s Jacob’s integrity and the judge’s attentiveness and ingenuity that are noteworthy. These were small things, but their effect was a win-win solution.

The bigness of small things is also apparent in relationships. While we may think extravagant gifts and grand gestures are essential, two separate surveys involving nearly 10,000 participants found that more highly valued were the small, everyday acts of caring, love, appreciation, and support. In fact, the results showed that gifts of any sort were considered less important than the thoughtfulness behind the gesture. In love and relationships, it’s the little things that matter most.

A related observation can be made about the giant ecosystems of digital information known as big data. While relevant at the macro or systems level, big data has overshadowed the significant role of small data. Savvy business and tech voices argue that big data fail to provide front line workers with the information bits and smaller insights they need in their daily work. Consequently, small is becoming the new big in the world of digital information.

These modern discoveries echo ancient Jewish wisdom about the importance of small things. The 12th-century philosopher/rabbi Maimonides stated: “Small things are the overflowing goodness that God gave us to settle this world in order to inherit the next world.”

In other words, as Paul Socken clarifies, it’s not the grand gestures in society that solve the world’s issues, but rather small, individual acts of personal connection and caring that unleash the goodness necessary to create a better world.

Rabbinic wisdom from the second century B.C.E. teaches, “One who learns from his fellow one chapter, or one halacha (Jewish law), or one verse, or one word, or even one letter, is obligated to treat him with honor,” highlighting the merit of teaching even the smallest bits of knowledge.

The Book of Leviticus records one of the earliest reflections on the significance of small things. Amid descriptions of the major festivals and holidays, a single verse declares that, when reaping the harvest, one must leave the corners of the field and the fallen gleanings untouched for the needy.

This juxtaposition shows that the big holiday observances and the small daily obligations to self, others, and society are equally vital.

Too often we focus only on doing the singular splashy things, those that generate personal rewards or emotional fireworks, while ignoring the more mundane, small things.

“And oh, how history has proven the importance of the little things,” notes Rabbi Norman Lamm. “The whole Egyptian exile began because of a mere two sela’im worth of silk which Jacob gave his favorite Joseph more of than his brothers, thus incurring their jealousy.”

“Small is the new big,” blogger Barri Sambaris writes. “Small actions make up our habits. Small words make up our thoughts. Small actions make up our attitude and behavior. Small things grow and are more efficient over time.”

Gratitude attitude. When it came time to bring forth the plagues in Egypt, Moses was in a dilemma. He surely couldn’t smite the very Nile waters that had saved him, turning them into blood or a breeding ground for swarms of frogs.

Nor could he despoil the dusty sand by turning it into predatory lice, for it had hidden the evidence of his crime — the dead Egyptian taskmaster.

So, Rashi suggests, Moses deliberately sat out the opening plagues and let Aaron take over, because they reminded him of his own story.

Acknowledging favors, acts of kindness, or even significant places or moments through little actions or words builds a big attitude of gratitude.

Unconditional kindness. One of the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah is the chassidah, the stork. The chassidah was so named, the sages say, because it acts with kindness (chesed) toward those of its own kind by sharing food.

Kindness is a worthy trait to emulate, so why is the chassidah among the non-kosher birds, those associated with a cruel nature?

The Kotzker Rebbe explains, “One must be kind to all God’s creatures, not only to ‘one’s own.’” Chesed begins small, with being kind to family and friends, and then to acquaintances and outsiders, and aspires to the big habit of unconditional kindness toward all.

Smile potential. Rabbi Beroka once asked Elijah to point out anyone in the marketplace who had a share in the World to Come. When Elijah pointed out a passerby, Rabbi Beroka engaged him in conversation and learned he had risked his life to alert the Jewish community to imminent antisemitic decrees.

A short time later, Elijah pointed out a couple walking by. When Rabbi Beroka asked about their occupation, they responded, “We are comedians. We cheer up those who are depressed and work to make peace among those who are quarreling.”

With a smile or happy demeanor, you can give a person life, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught. “This is a great thing and by no means a minor matter.”

“Our life should become a text for others,” asserts Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, a text on how to be great in small, commonplace, ordinary goodnesses.

The little act, the little task performed regularly and faithfully, this is what gives tone, content, and character to a society; and if done well, builds the gateway to the Messianic Age. For Judaism, small is the “old-new” big.


Literature to share

Debbie’s Song by Ellen Leventhal. The inspirational Jewish music of the renowned American singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman has enhanced the liturgies and spiritual experiences at countless synagogues, camps, and community events. In this inspiring biography, young readers are introduced to her story, her delight in Jewish tradition, and her mission of bringing people together.

Teachers: The Ones I Can’t Forget by Martin Fletcher. A multi award-winning foreign correspondent and author for over 40 years, Martin Fletcher has reported on myriad notable figures and ordinary people in extreme circumstances, often on the worst days of their lives. In this collection of their stories, Fletcher shares the invaluable lesson he discovered about life and living. What can we, too, learn from them?


To read the complete September 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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