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KI TEYTZEY 5774 - Sweat the Small Stuff

KI TEYTZEY 5774 

Sweat the Small Stuff

Do you remember Richard Carlson’s popular book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? It comes with a subtitle: and it’s all small stuff! It’s a book that tells you how to keep from letting the little things in life drive you crazy. Its promotional material describes the book as containing, “thoughtful and insightful…ways to calm down in the midst of your incredibly hurried, stress-filled life.” It sounds so wonderful and profound, doesn’t it?

Truth be told, however, I don’t get it! And that’s because—as my colleague Rabbi Jack Reimer once pointed out to me—the Jewish approach is just the opposite. The Jewish approach is, “Sweat the small stuff” and pay attention to the little details of your life, because how you treat the small things will determine how you treat the big things. Today’s Torah portion of Ki Teytzey is a great illustration of this. It contains more commandments than any other—72 according to Maimonides—many of them dealing with small matters.

For example, the Torah (Deut. 22:1-2) commands us that if we find our neighbor’s ox or sheep that have gone astray, we must return it to him. If you can’t figure out whose ox or sheep it is, then you must take it home and care for it until your neighbor comes to claim it. That’s pretty straightforward. An ox or a sheep was an expensive piece of property in those days. But then the Torah (Deut. 22:3) goes on to say: “You shall do the same for his donkey, his garment, and so shall you do for any lost article your neighbor loses that you find. You must not remain indifferent.”

Hold on. Do I really have to bother if my neighbor’s son hits a ball into my back yard or if I find a 2nd-hand scooter in my front yard—both of which are not worth very much? Do I really have to find room in my house for his dog, which requires maintenance, especially if I don’t like dogs? Do I really have to worry about driving to his house and dropping off an old book with his name in it that I found—when the effort of doing so will cost me more than the book is worth?

To which the Torah answers, “Yes, you do.” It’s not for you to decide what is a small thing and what is valuable to your neighbor. To you it may be just a dog or a book. To him, these things may have enormous sentimental value.

What happens if you don’t bother to return something just because you think it’s not worth the bother? We are all geniuses when it comes to rationalization. Today, you won’t bother to return a book; tomorrow you won’t bother to return a wallet. And so, the Torah doesn’t leave it to us to decide what is small stuff and what is not. The Torah says that it’s all big stuff, and we should treat it accordingly. 

The Torah (Deut. 22:10) today further teaches: Lo tacharosh b’shor uvachamor yachdav, “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” Why not? Who will care if you do that and whom will it hurt? It won’t hurt any person, but it will hurt the 2 animals. If you harness 2 animals together—one of which is stronger and one which is faster—you will cause pain to the animals. The weaker one won’t be able pull the same weight and the slower one won’t be able to keep up. 

And if you say: “I am not hurting anyone—just 2 animals, and animals are not people.” Or if you say: “Hey! This is small stuff! No Small Claims Court would bother to hear this case.” The Torah comes to teach you that there is no such thing as small stuff. Hurting an animal is big stuff, for they feel pain just as a human being does. And if you get used to hurting animals, it’s only one small step from there to getting used to hurting people. And so the Torah here teaches us that we should sweat the small stuff.

The Torah continues with some very important laws that deal with the sanctity of marriage and protecting prisoners who are captured in war. And right in the middle of the section on the laws of warfare comes this law (Deut. 23: 13-15): “You shall have a place outside the camp where you may go to relieve yourself. With your gear you must pack a shovel, and after you have relieved yourself, you shall dig a hole with this shovel, and then cover it up. For the Lrd your Gd walks about in your camp, so let your camp be holy.”

I have not studied the literature of all religions, but in the holy books that I have studied, I have never seen a law like this. There’s no place in the Koran or in the New Testament I know of that tells soldiers to worry about sanitation. Isn’t the Torah supposed to teach us how to be spiritual? Why on earth do we need a law about hygiene and plumbing in it? Surely this is small stuff—if ever there was such a thing!

And yet the Torah requires that soldiers worry about sanitation. The Torah reminds us that Gd is present in the camp, and therefore, we must be careful to keep the camp clean. In effect the Torah is telling us that a place that does not worry about hygiene is not a place where Gd will want to dwell. You can’t find a law that deals with the nitty-gritty of life more than this one. The Torah here teaches us that the community must be clean, before it can be spiritual. And if that is small stuff, then so be it. Small stuff is also essential in the service of Gd!

And then right in the middle of laws dealing with finance and credit comes this law (Deut. 23:25): “When you enter someone’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you desire, but you may not put any in your vessel.” In other words, if you’re strolling through someone else’s field, you have the right to nosh. You can take one or 2 or even a few more grapes. But you are not allowed to put any in your pocket.

And if you were to say: “Hey. C’mon! What’s the difference between noshing and taking some along with you when you leave the field? If you can take a few, why can’t you take a few more? Is this really something worth the Torah’s time to forbid? Isn’t this really small stuff?”

But what would happen to the harvest if I took a dollar’s worth and you took a dollar’s worth, and all our friends took a dollar’s worth, and if they called their friends and invited them to take a dollar’s worth? If I can do it, why can’t they? The Torah forbids you to take more than you can nibble on while you walk because it understands that there’s no such thing as small stuff.

Then the Torah continues with some very big laws like the laws of marriage and divorce and the right of workers to be paid on time. Right in the middle of these big and important laws comes this one (Deut. 24:19): “When you harvest your field and you forget one sheaf, you cannot go back to collect it. It belongs to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.” One sheaf? How much good will that do for the poor? How much difference will that make to the widow or the orphan or the stranger?

And yet the Torah is very clear: you are not allowed to go back, because, from the moment you drop it, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the poor. The poor man does not have to ask or beg you for it because the Torah says it’s legally his the moment you drop it and therefore he can take it with dignity. Not to have to beg is no small thing.

And there’s a law (Deut. 22:6-7) that, when you come upon a bird’s nest, and the mother bird is sitting on the nest, you must send the mother bird away before you take the eggs or the young birds. You must be sensitive even to a bird’s feelings. If you say this is small stuff, you may be right, but the way we treat the lowest forms of life teaches us how to treat the higher forms of life. If birds must be treated with kindness and reverence, then surely so must all Gd’s creatures.

And so I must respectfully disagree with Richard Carlson who teaches: “Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff.” The Torah, on the other hand teaches, “We Should Sweat the Small Stuff,” because by treating the small stuff properly, we will live as befits creatures who are made in the Image of Gd. Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                                9/6/14

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