It’s the Small Things that Matter: D’var Torah for Ki Teitze & Elul 5783
Recently, my husband Jon and I made an agreement: we will not talk about anything of meaning or importance, about us, the kids or our work or life, after 9pm. If one of us has a thought we desperately want to share with the other, or an agenda item that has to get discussed ,(and trust me there is a lot of business when managing tweens and teen doctor appointments, social engagement, school activities etc] we strive to write it down and bring it back up the next day or another time. It is very, very hard- but very worthwhile. For this seemingly small change — this agreement — has made what seems like an outsized impact on the quality of our lives. We are fighting less, misfiring and getting hurt less often, and feeling less resentment and tension. On the net gain side: more openness, improved communication and connection. All from that change.
A midrash on Teshuvah (repair, repentance, turning, i.e. the work of Elul and the High Holidays) teaches: “Open a door to repentance as tiny as the eye of a needle and I will open your gates wide enough to let carts and horse-drawn carriages drive through.”
As tiny as the eye of a needle — imagine it in your mind’s eye! Once we make a little bit of space, even the smallest amount, a window and a door and gates opens for change!
Another way of putting it, by the artist Betsy Teutsch:
“Teshvah/turning need not be a dramatically large change to be significant. A subtle shift now, or even just a fraction of a degree out of 360, can take one on a vastly different path over the course of a life’s trajectory.” [Kol HaNeshema Machzor for the High Holidays]
Teshuvah is such a “BIG” concept. Repentance, turning our lives around, returning to our core selves. It is said to be a primordial force which was present before Creation itself. It is said it has the capacity to change our lives and the world. All of this is terrifyingly exciting and also perhaps a bit daunting.
It is helpful and important to remember as we engage with Teshuvah that it is perhaps especially the small things that matter — the small changes we make or actions we take are what can open up new possibilities beyond what we imagined.
Small things like:
-Deciding to the say a prayer when you wake up in the morning
-Committing to make that phone call even though you wish you were the person who was being called
-Putting down your phone when you are checking out at the store or really anytime more than you normally do
-Bringing more Shabbat into your life
-And a million other examples —
It’s the small things that open the gates of change and possibility for us.
This message is found in this week’s Torah Portion, Ki Teitze. Ki Teitze is a parsha primarily of law. 74 out of the traditional 613 commandments are found in it. As is often the case with these lengthly, legal parshiot, within this text we find some of the most ennobling and compassionate laws and within this text we find some of the most difficult and offensive.
In the midst of all that, we encounter a law that seems a little out of place, as in “something about this is not like the other.” It doesn’t seem to be at the same level of gravitas or import as the others:
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.
Why would this raise to the level of a mitzvah?
Mitzvot take some striving, some discipline; often, they require personal sacrifice. This is such a small act, one that could even be done by a child; or honestly done without thought or intention. As R. Yitz Greenberg points out, one might be able to send away the mother birth only my making a loud noise or by walking close to the animal until her natural fear and flight instincts took over. As Greenberg teaches, this mitzvah is the most “Kal” — the lightest of all the commandments according to the Talmud.
And, the end of the commandment formulation reinforces the strangeness of the passage. The text says: WHEN you do this: וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃ You will have a long life!
This is only one of three specific commandments for which the reward of long life is outlined. And one of those three is HONORING your parents — one of (if not the) the hardest mitzvot to do.
It seems that this commandment is among the the 613 to teach a very important lesson start- that it is often the smallest actions, smallest behaviors that make the most difference.
And building on Greenberg’s argument, I think there is something else and related about this particular mitzvah. The mitzvah itself is considered “light” or small because of the effort — however, let’s think about it differently.
The action required might be “light” — yet goal of the action is quite serious and important. Shooing away the mama bird is important not only because of the immediate moment in which it happens. Rather, it is important because it is meant to cultivate something very “big” inside you.
It is meant to cultivate:
-a kind heart
-a compassionate presence
-a gentle spirit
-an awe for all living things
-a sensitivity to pain and suffering
Looking at it from this angle, this commandment is not SMALL at all. It is about utilizing a mitzvah as a training ground for becoming the kind of people that we want to be.
In the words of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin: “Human character is not forged in the big things, because those things do not happen very often. Human character is forged in the small deeds.”
Hearkening back to the connection of mitzvot or other actions for the sake of teshuvah, the small changes we set up in our lives to open pathways of teshuvah are there not only to change a behavior or to have better discipline in our lives. They are set up so that we can be more present, mindful, caring and compassionate people.
And I think herein lies the answer as to why this mitzvah of all mitzvot connects to the promise of a long life — because the culmination of meaningful small decisions and intentions is what enables us to be who we are meant to be, the most kind and compassionate versions of ourselves, giving meaning and purpose to our days.