January 4th-5th, 2002
21 Teves, 5762
We all have a tendency to underestimate--if not overlook completely--the "small" gestures of kindness that others do for us each day: a smile, a kind word, a door held open, a phone message precisely recorded, a cup of coffee (in my case, seven or eight) graciously poured by our spouse. The list goes on and on.
And yet, in a bleak mood of frustration, usually caused by some truly small and petty setback, we can so easily "write off" our whole day…and the whole world. At such moments, why don't we, rather, take comfort from all those daily "small" signs of care and concern (and caffeine), and give some thanks (if not break into ecstatic dance)? What's with us, anyway?!
Up to now, I've been talking mere person-to-person stuff. When it comes to G-d, then our tendency to underestimate and overlook becomes even more pronounced. "Small" kindnesses we enjoy every moment (our hearts pumping properly, our white blood cells busily patrolling and protecting us from invasion, our stomach juices dutifully breaking down this morning's danish) hardly ever make even the smallest blip on the radar screens of our consciousness. We're too busy mourning the "big" bummers in
life--like losing money on the Falcons game (surprise?). Such is life…even after 9/11. (Though perhaps somewhat less so).
Here's the point: Torah ethics teach us that the "small" acts of kindness we enjoy from both our fellow man, and from our watchful Father and King, are not small at all. The "small" acts of kindness we show to others (or choose not to) are not small at all. Rather, WE are small if we characterize them that way.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, zt'l, one of 20th century Jewry's most penetrating ethical thinkers, makes this point in analyzing this week's Torah portion. (See Da'as Torah, II, pp. 5-12)
Consider the following for starters. In recounting Pharaoh's wicked policy of infanticide against the Jewish people in Egypt, the Torah mentions the bravery of two Jewish midwives who disobeyed the monarch's orders:
And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, and the name of one was Shifrah, and the name of the other, Puah. And he said, 'When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstools; if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.' But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive. (Exodus: 1, 15-17)
Our Sages tell us (as Rashi explains in his commentary) that these two Jewish midwives--who were not the only ones in the country, but were the chief midwives and charged with special responsibilities (see Ibn Ezra)--were actually Yocheved (Moshe's mother) and her daughter, Miriam. The first is called, Shifrah (from a Hebrew root meaning, "beautiful"), "because she beautifies the child" after it is born; the second is called, Puah (from a Hebrew root meaning, "cry out"), "because she cries, and speaks and coos to the child in the manner of women who soothe a crying baby." [Rashi; Artscroll Rashi translation.]
Rav Yerucham Levovitz is taken aback by this passage, and its rabbinic explanation. We have not been introduced to these two women before, and yet here they are given special names by the Torah…and on account of what seem to be the "smallest" and most ordinary of motherly, or midwifely, actions (beautifying and comforting infants). And names that appear in the Torah, he points out, always characterize an important feature of the inner essence of the person! What's going on here?
The truth, Rav Yerucham explains, is as we said before. There are no "small" acts of kindness. Or better: there are no actions in this world that are inherently "small," no actions that do not afford us an opportunity to further our spiritual development and display greatness of character and dedication to the service of G-d. As he puts it:
"…for there are no things [inherently] 'small' or 'great.' Rather, everything
depends on the person. The great person is the one who can go and 'gather
sheaves of greatness' from even things so [seemingly] 'small' and mundane [as the midwives' ministrations]. And conversely, the small
person will convert even the most lofty things into mere rubbish and
refuse… People who are themselves great live in greatness…they see in
every matter [the potential for] greatness and exaltedness…From the mere
playful poo-pooing to small children, they can become worthy of ascending to a high level, to a special and designated place in the Holy
Torah. And petty people-they trample with their feet every truly elevated
thing. All things, in their eyes, are 'small' things! [my translation and emphasis]
Yocheved and Miriam, who presumably would have been mentioned anyway in the Torah for their part in the narrative of Moshe's life, earned a special place (and special names) in the Torah for the way they carried out their duties as midwives. From the "mere" way they cared for the Jewish infants (lovingly and patiently) despite the persecutions of an increasingly bleak and fearful Egyptian exile, they displayed their greatness. We should never forget the well-known teaching of our Sages in the Talmud that it was the merit of the righteous Jewish women in Egypt that led to our redemption as a people. The "small" acts of care and comfort that they showed to their children and to their despairing husbands kept the Jewish people physically and spiritually alive during the Egyptian persecution. (Remember that the next time she tells you to take out the trash, guys…)
We must make mention of one more example of "smallness" discussed by Rav Yerucham Levovitz. What are we shown about Moshe Rabbeinu directly before he receives the prophetic communication from G-d at the burning bush (which begins, if you will, the whole saga of the exodus from Egypt…and journey to Mt. Sinai)? "Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yisro, his father-in-law, the noble of Midian; he guided the sheep far into the wilderness, and he arrived at the Mountain of G-d, toward Horeb [Sinai]" (3, 1)
Two "small" displays of Moshe's true greatness of soul are contained in this humble verse. First, we see the hatred of theft that Moshe had consciously striven to make a part of his character. The
Midrash explains that Moshe led the sheep so far into the wilderness in order to make sure that they would graze on ownerless property, and not damage anybody's field:
before God confers [outward] greatness on a man He first tests him by a little thing and then promotes him to greatness. Here you have two great leaders whom God first proved by a little thing, found trustworthy, and then promoted to greatness. He tested David with sheep, which he led through the wilderness, only in order to keep them from robbing [private fields]… Similarly in the case of Moshe it says: 'And he guided the sheep far into the wilderness'-in order to keep them from despoiling [the fields of others]. [Since he showed his inner greatness,] G-d took him [Moshe] to tend Israel. [SHEMOS RABBAH: II, 3]
Second, our Sages show us, in Moshe's treatment of his flock, the great patience and love any would-be leader (and especially, perhaps, a leader over a "stiff-necked people") must display:
…Moses was tested by God through sheep. Our Rabbis said that when Moshe our teacher, peace be upon him, was tending the flock of Yisro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place. When it reached the shady place, there appeared in view a pool of water, and the kid stopped to drink. When Moshe approached it, he said: 'I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary.' So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away. Thereupon G-d said: 'Because you had mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, you will assuredly tend My flock, Israel.'
[SHEMOS RABBAH II, 2]
"Small" acts, cutesy vignettes, trifles?
No, this is only how small people look at the Torah (and at themselves and the world).
G-d sees the inner greatness contained in such actions--the noble (and laboriously developed) character traits of kindness, sensitivity and concern for others. Traits that make a person worthy of leadership.
May we all strive to develop ourselves through every action and every mitzvah we do. Our lives are littered with opportunities to grow. We just have to be big enough (and thoughtful enough) to see the potential in ourselves, in our fellow man and in the challenges (and
kindnesses) G-d bestows on us every day. Nothing is small, brother.
Like I say to my kids: I'll try to do better if you try to. Deal?
My new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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