The Golden Calf, as seen in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."
The Golden Calf, as seen in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."

‘Unimportant’ acts make all the difference

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

The Exodus from Egypt began when every family gathered together to share a lamb on that first seder night. They dipped a hyssop branch into the lamb’s blood and dabbed it on their doorframes as a protection against the 10th plague.

Commenting on the use of hyssop, the Midrash teaches:

“There are things that appear lowly in human eyes. The hyssop, for instance, appears to be of no worth to people. Yet with so small a thing, God worked miracles and freed the Jewish people from Egypt.”

What a beautiful and relevant message for contemporary times.

Today, we worship idols of bigness: the famous, the powerful, the wealthy — the bigger, the better. Celebrity is our Golden Calf. We think for a person to be valuable they must be a “huge success,” a “giant personality,” a “big influencer,” a “superstar.” We are impressed by the number of followers someone has on social media. The more someone is liked and tweeted about, the greater their worth. Everything is data driven, and everyone is number obsessed.

The problem with worshipping the gods of bigness and giving free rein to our desire for fame is that we run the risk of forgetting the significance of the little things that really matter. Visiting a friend who is fighting to get well might seem a little thing to do, but in God’s eyes — and in your friend’s eyes — it is big.

A few kind words to someone who is lonely might not seem much, but it makes all the difference. By undertaking such “unimportant” acts, you become like the hyssop: God’s messenger. You make the world a kinder and more loving place to live in. You make changes that cannot be measured.

No one is loved more than a mother. She is precious not because she is a celebrity, but because she believes in her child when no one else does. She loves unconditionally. She works for her family tenderly, lovingly and tirelessly. She is always there to catch them when they fall and to cheer them on toward success. She performs kind deeds without grabbing headlines and is more precious to God than the public heroes.

All our admiration over the big and famous, the high and mighty is a delusion. It’s not the wealth, power and recognition that make a life successful but its content!

We ought never underestimate the importance of little things to make a big difference.

It was Passover and the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov came to Mezhbizh to spend Pesach with their rebbe. It was always an uplifting, magical experience to be in the presence of the Ba’al Shem. But on this Passover, the students could sense that something was wrong; the Ba’al Shem was not in his usual buoyant spirit.

Today, we worship idols of bigness: the famous, the powerful, the wealthy — the bigger, the better.

The Ba’al Shem did not expound on the deep meanings of the haggadah. Instead, he quietly read the text. Near the end of the seder, the Ba’al Shem closed his eyes. The room was silent. Suddenly, he started laughing. “Mazel Tov!” he exclaimed. “You should know that the simplest person has the power to move heaven.”

The disciples sat perplexed as he began to explain: “A few days ago, I had a premonition that a pogrom was going to break out in a certain village of 400 Jewish families.

“I prayed, but I couldn’t overcome the looming catastrophe. When we sat down to the seder, I didn’t see any hope. But in an instant, everything changed. Let me tell you how.

“Tonight, a childless couple who live in the village where the pogrom would break out were sitting at their seder table. Although they are simple, they are exceptionally kind and full of good deeds. When they reached the section of the haggadah about the Egyptians throwing the baby boys into the Nile, the wife started to cry. Her husband tried to comfort her, ‘My sweet wife, don’t be sad. After all, the Jews were taken out of Egypt.’

“The wife spoke back, ‘If God had blessed me with a son, I would have not let anyone hurt him. And I certainly would not have let anyone treat my son the way God let us be treated by the Egyptians.’

“The husband stood up for God, saying, ‘God is righteous in all that He does — it’s only that we can’t understand why it is good.’

“But the wife retorted, ‘No. Why isn’t God more compassionate? In His infinite wisdom, He can figure out a way to be kinder in a revealed way, so that we can see and know it. How could He have treated us like this?’

“This argument proceeded as they progressed through the haggadah. Finally, after completing the fourth cup of wine, the husband couldn’t think of another answer to his wife’s arguments against God’s behavior. So he conceded, ‘My wife, you’re right. God should have treated His children better.’

“They both laughed, the tension melting away. Then they got up, joined hands and sang and danced around the table, celebrating the miracles God performed in Egypt. At that moment, the women’s words and their dancing shook heaven. Through the merit of her argument and her joy, the danger against the Jews of their village was neutralized. God intervened.”

The Ba’al Shem said to his disciples. “When I saw the effect that this dancing had, I burst out laughing. I rejoiced in the power of their sincerity and joy that saved the lives of hundreds of people, even when my prayers were to no avail.”

“You should know,” concluded the Ba’al Shem, “when the two of them danced, not only did they dance, but all of heaven danced with them.”

You may find yourself sitting alone or with a loved one, enjoying a moment of holiness. Even while engaged in a mitzvah, you think: “I’m just a simple man or a simple woman — unimportant, invisible, inconsequential. Who knows what I’m doing? And who cares?”

God knows and is cheering you on. As you sing, heaven sings with you. History changes for the better because of your joy. A few kind words to someone who is lonely or a joyous prayer might not seem like much, but in God’s hands, that hyssop becomes a force capable of saving the whole world.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

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