A mosaic in the synagogue of Enschede, Netherlands, shows the hand signal given by priests when they recite the Priestly Blessing, which is described un Naso, this week's Torah portion. (Photo/Wikimedia-Kleuske CC BY-SA 3.0)
A mosaic in the synagogue of Enschede, Netherlands, shows the hand signal given by priests when they recite the Priestly Blessing, which is described un Naso, this week's Torah portion. (Photo/Wikimedia-Kleuske CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sweat the small stuff — or nothing at all

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Numbers 4:21-7:89

There is a remarkable midrash in which various sages each describe their idea of the great principle of Judaism; its fundamental creed and essential wisdom.

Ben Azzai says it is the verse: “On the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” Ben Zoma says there is a more embracing principle: “Listen, Israel, God is one.” Ben Nannas says there is a yet more embracing principle: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Ben Pazzi says we find a more embracing principle still, quoting this verse: “One sheep you shall offer in the morning, and a second in the afternoon.”

The first three views are self-explanatory.

The foundational principles of Judaism are the human person as God’s image in this world, a steadfast belief in God’s unity and the love of neighbor as a Divine commandment. These ideas, introduced 3,300 years ago by the Torah, defined the moral landscape of civilization.

But how does the verse about the sheep represent an all-embracing principle?

Shockingly the midrash agrees with Ben Pazzi. In fact, his chosen verse is the greatest of all principles.

The meaning of Ben Pazzi’s statement is clear: All the high ideals in the world — the human person as God’s image, belief in God, love of neighbor — count for little until they are translated into concrete and regular acts. Judaism asks the human being, as it does in this week’s Torah section, to make daily sacrifices for truth, for love, for peace. “One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second in the afternoon.”

We can all recall moments of insight when we had a great idea, a glimpse of a project that could change our lives, a flash of understanding. A week later the thought was forgotten. The people who change the world, whether in small or epic ways, are those who turn peak experiences into daily deeds, who know that the small details matter.

You know the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” Well, I think we all may have gotten it backwards. Yes, it’s important not to sweat life’s little inconveniences and petty frustrations. But there is also a time to absolutely sweat the small stuff because doing so will make a significant difference.

Judaism’s greatness is that it takes high ideals and exalted visions — image of God, love of neighbor — and turns them into small patterns of behavior, mitzvot, which give discipline to our lives. It tells us to sweat the small stuff because commitment to gradual, consistent improvement will turn life into a masterpiece.

In the 1930s, tens of thousands of Americans contracted polio and were often paralyzed or killed by it. No cure existed, and it devastated generations. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt, himself sick with the disease, established a foundation to raise money to care for polio victims. He was extremely dedicated to making the fight against polio a national cause.

The movement was fast-tracked when famous entertainer Eddie Cantor cut a radio announcement. He asked the nation to send their loose change to the cause, urging listeners to create a “march of dimes” to reach all the way to the White House. “March of Dimes” was a pun based on a popular newsreel called “March of Time.” The name stuck.

In his announcement, Cantor encouraged Americans to give by saying, “The March of Dimes will enable all persons, even the children, to show our president that they are with him in the battle against this disease. Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes. However, it takes only 10 dimes to make a dollar, and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000.”

The estimate proved conservative. Americans began emptying their pockets, and little bits of money quickly added up, with 2.7 million dimes flooding the Oval Office. Some seven years later, the March of Dimes foundation raised $18.9 million in 1945 alone.

Roosevelt died that year, but the March of Dimes lived on. Four years later, the fund used money to underwrite promising research being done by a Jewish doctor at the University of Pittsburgh named Jonas Salk. In 1955, Salk created the vaccine that all but eradicated polio in most of the world by the 1960s.

Those little dimes added up to a big difference. Or as Ben Pazzi would say: “One dime you shall give in the morning, and a second in the afternoon.” That is what it takes, to heal the world and change the course of history.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.