The Bigness of Little Things


By Rabbi Gregory Marx
Parshat Mishpatim

My wife and I have not been able to travel, go out for dinner, see friends, even be with our own children and family members. I suspect that each of us have experienced the same painful isolation. When I go through my photos on the computer, I realize that so many of the big events have just been put on hold.

This is, of course, a minor pain when compared to the massive unemployment, economic downturn and increase of suicides in recent months. COVID takes life both directly and indirectly.
So how do we deal with all this emotional pain? What wisdom does out tradition offer to those who just “can’t take it anymore?”

The solution is doing things small. In our home, to cope with the new reality, we have created mini vacations, set up special dinners in our home and, of course, set up virtual gatherings. It is small in comparison to the big events of last year, but in celebrating the small stuff we learn a critical lesson of Torah. Little things are more important than the big things.

Consider that last week’s Torah portion described the most decisive events in Jewish history, that shining movement when our ancestors stood at the foot of a quaking and smoking Mount Sinai and heard the majestic Ten Commandments proclaimed amidst thunder and lightning. The moment is grand in tone and content.
From Sinai, we learned fundamental teachings of our faith, absolute monotheism, uncompromising opposition to idolatry, the holiness of Shabbat, the sanctity of human life and marriage, and the inviolable rights of our neighbors.

By contrast, so many of the laws, which are proclaimed in this Torah portion, appear almost trivial, small in comparison. They deal with wounds inflicted during arguments, the treatment of slaves, oxen that gore, livestock which graze in a neighbor’s field, gossiping.

Our sages wisely comment that these laws are just as holy as the Ten Commandments. They are no less significant, no less sacred.
The rabbis decreed this to counter two prevailing trends in the ancient world.

First, in the Temple in Jerusalem, the order of daily worship included the recitation of the Ten Commandments (Mishnah Tamid 5:1). However, after the rise of Christianity, the reading of the Ten Commandments at daily worship services was discontinued. The early Christians contended that only these commandments were given at Sinai and none other.

Therefore, the other laws had no divine sanction (Palestinian Talmud, Berakkhot 3c). To deemphasize the Ten Commandments, the sages removed them from the regular order of worship, and then augmented the authority of the “little laws” by explicitly claiming for them Sinaitic origin. All of the mitzvot are binding, not just the big and lofty.

Second, our sages knew what we have learned again in COVID. The little things are what make life meaningful. Life is lived around the kitchen table, on walks with our children in the beauty and splendor of nature, and, of course, in the honest conversations between life partners. When we can’t enjoy the big moments of life, like flying to a romantic destination, then make the little things big. Find intimacy wherever you are. Live and love and laugh because we don’t need to go to New York for a great night out. We can find joy in our own homes, enjoying the simple pleasures we used to take for granted.

George Eliot in “Middlemarch” wrote about the power of little people doing little things: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The little act, the little task performed regularly and faithfully by little people, this is what gives tone, content and character to a society.

In her darkness, Helen Keller saw a shining truth: “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble … For the world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

In doing little things may we find both greatness and joy.

Rabbi Gregory Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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