Thursday, November 14, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


Dear Rabbi,
Why does the Jewish religion seem to obsess over insignificant details?  How much matza do we have to eat, which spoon did I use for milk and which for meat, what is the right way to tie my shoelaces?  It seems to me that this misses the bigger picture by focusing on minutiae.  Is this nitpicking what Jews call spirituality? 
(I already sent you this question over a week ago and didn't receive a reply.  Could it be that you have finally been asked a question that you can't answer?)

Dear Jeff,
I never claimed to have all the answers.  There are many questions that are beyond me.  But it happens to be that I did answer your question, and you did get the answer.  I sent a reply immediately.  The fact that you didn't receive it is itself the answer to your question.
You see, I sent you a reply, but I wrote your email address leaving out the "dot" before the "com".  I figured that you should still receive the email because after all, it is only one little dot missing.  I mean, come on, it's not as if I wrote the wrong name or something drastic like that!  Would anyone be so nitpicky as to differentiate between "yahoocom" and ""?  Isn't it a bit ridiculous that you didn't get my email just because of a little dot?
No, it's not ridiculous.  Because the dot is not just a dot.  It represents something.  That dot has meaning far beyond the pixels on the screen that form it.  To me it may seem insignificant, but that is simply due to my ignorance of the ways of the web.  All I know is that with the dot, the message gets to the right destination; without it, the message is lost to oblivion.
Jewish practices have infinite depth.  Each nuance and detail contains a world of symbolism and every act counts.  When they are performed with precision, a spiritual vibration is emailed throughout the universe all the way to G-d's inbox.
If you want to understand the symbolism of the dot, study it!
If you want to understand the symbolism of Judaism, study it!

All the best,
Rabbi Moss1

The reunion of Yaakov and Eisav was imminent. Realizing the peril they were facing, Yaakov divided his family into two camps. If Eisav would attack he would be unable to destroy them in one fell swoop.
Under the cover of darkness, Yaakov sent his family across the Yabok stream along with all their possessions. The Torah states, “Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.2” Rashi explains that the “man” with whom Yaakov struggled was the guardian angel of Eisav. Their struggle represented the epic perennial struggle between Yaakov and Eisav, as they vie for philosophical supremacy and the title of ‘Chosen Nation’.
Rashi3 states that Yaakov had already crossed the stream with his family but had returned because he had forgotten pachim ketanim, small earthenware pitchers, which he wanted to retrieve.
My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that there is an invaluable lesson to be gleaned from Yaakov’s actions. The fact that Yaakov was willing to endanger himself to salvage those jugs demonstrates their personal value to Yaakov. “We like to think of life as being composed of big things – career changes, medical issues, political decisions that may have far reaching consequences for us, family, financial decisions, etc. – and small things – shopping, the post office, eating lunch, doing the everyday thing’s that make up most of our life’s activities. People imagine that their lives are guided and judged solely by the big things in life. But the truth is that it is the small things in life that define us.”
Yaakov is so named because when he emerged from his mother’s womb “His hand was grasping the heel of Eisav.4” Eisav, by nature, sees the ‘big picture’, the glitz and glamour, the life-altering and civilization-altering decisions and movements. Eisav is able to destroy people and civilizations for the sake of promoting an idea or a theory about the betterment of mankind. The various movements of the early twentieth century, that have heinously left their mark on civilization, demonstrated this nefarious paradox. They destroyed millions of people for the ultimate hope of improving mankind. All the evil perpetrated along the way, including destroyed families and communities, were merely par for the course.
In Parshas Eikev5 Moshe Rabbeinu tells Klal Yisroel, “This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them; Hashem, your G-d will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your fathers.” Rashi quotes the Medrash which explains that, alternatively, the word “eikev”, which appears at the beginning of the verse, can refer to the heel of one’s foot. Moshe was making reference to those mitzvos that people regard as relatively trivial and unimportant; the mitzvos that people figuratively “tread on with their heels”. Moshe was telling Klal Yisroel that if they are careful to adhere to those neglected mitzvos, then G-d will uphold His covenant with them as well.
Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt’l explained that often ‘commonplace’ mitzvos are neglected and overlooked because people are busy dealing with ‘bigger things’. It is analogous to a pole-vaulter who is so focused on the high bar that he ignores the little pebbles under the pole which trip him up and impede him from reaching the high bar.
Rabbi Kotler notes that it was for this reason that two of Klal Yisroel’s greatest leaders, Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid Hamelech, were tested based on their shepherding skills. The fact that both tended their sheep with devotion, and dedication was an indication that they would have the necessary love, devotion, and dedication with which to lead a nation.  
Yaakov grasped the heel of Eisav for it is the task of Yaakov to prevent Eisav from destroying the world. Yaakov values what Eisav disregards. To Yaakov the ‘petty’ details of life, religion, and human emotions are invaluable and integral. In the words of my Rebbe, “Apparently, he who controls the “heel” controls the fate of mankind.” 

In his book, “The Intellectuals”, Paul Johnson examines the lives of the progressive intelligentsia of the greatest revolutionaries and avant-garde thinkers of the modern era, including Rousseau, Hemingway, and Tolstoy. There is an apparent frightening correlation between their diverse lives. It seems that the more radical and earth-shattering their ideas were the more immoral and indecent they lived. “Almost without exception, these great thinkers, these "defenders of humanity" - full of lofty ideas - lied, cheated, stole, plagiarized, repeatedly cheated on their spouses, abandoned their children, and so on. Their ideas were big, their vision broad, their sights high, but as a rule they were the kind of people you'd get up and move across town in order to avoid.
“How is it that such "great" people could think so big and act so small? Judaism teaches that it wasn't a coincidence. It was, in fact, because they thought so big - or, better, because they only thought so big - that they acted so small! The truth is that most of us can only concentrate on a limited amount of things at a time. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler points out in the Michtav M'Eliyahu, a person who over-focuses on "Important People" or "Important Theories" will almost necessarily under-focus on the little old lady across the street, or the needs of one's spouse. Someone who is so absorbed in the mega-concerns of the corporation and its organizational needs might easily fail to notice their sick neighbor who needs a helping hand to do the shopping.6

Judaism is preoccupied with details because it is imperative that one heed those details in order to traverse the bigger challenges of life. The precious few moments with our families, small conversations, and words of encouragement, are integral components of the ultimate goal of producing valuable families and civilizations. The minute details involved in our adherence to halacha, the added concentration on our prayers, and the moments we spend engaged in Torah study each day, all comprise the holistic person.
In a similar vein, the educator who works daily to develop a relationship with a student may be able to help the student develop the great potential that lies dormant within. But the educator who ignores the small details that build relationships will almost certainly not be able to stimulate the student in a deep and lasting manner.

The holiday of Chanukah is a celebration of little, seemingly insignificant, lights. Although the Torah is the dominating light of the world as well as its ultimate purpose, the Torah also directs every small component and detail of life. Before Pesach, we hold a single-wick candle and search every nook and cranny in our homes for chometz7. In a symbolic sense, that little flame represents the light of Torah which infiltrates every nook and cranny of our souls and lives. Similarly, the lights of the Menorah represent the little stubborn light of Klal Yisroel which unflinchingly refuses to become extinguished in the bleak darkness of exile. Until the world merits the eternal light of the messianic era, the world continues to be sustained by the flickering iridescence of the Chanukah Menorah and the Shabbos Candles, which contain a glimmer of that future light.
There are commentators who note that the jug Yaakov went to retrieve from across the Yabok River was the very jug that the Maccabees miraculously found after defeating the Syrian-Greeks centuries later.
In other words, Yaakov’s jug was the legendary jug which housed the oil that became the conduit of the great Chanukah miracle. Yaakov understood that if G-d granted him ownership of a small jug it had great potential value, and therefore he risked his safety to retrieve them.
The Maccabees too, could have waited a week until new pure oil was procured and delivered to the Bais Hamikdash. But they understood the massive spiritual loss they would incur if they missed the opportunity to fulfill the great mitzvah of kindling the Menorah for another week. Therefore, they undertook the onerous search until they found one jug that contained sufficient oil with which to fulfill the mitzvah for one day. It was because they valued the mitzvah so much that G-d granted them the wondrous miracle that allowed them to fulfill the mitzvah for all eight days until new oil arrived.
 …The little things in life!

“His hand was grasping the heel of Eisav”
“The mitzvos people tread on with their heels”
1 Rabbi Aron Moss teaches Talmud and practical Judaism at the Foundation for Education in Sydney, Australia.
2 Bereshis 32:25
3 citing Gemara Chullin 91a
4 Bereishis 25:26
5 Devorim 7:12
6 Doron Kornbluth, Thinking Small,
7 leaven forbidden on Pesach


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