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Thinking Small

by Doron Kornbluth

When my wife and I decided to settle in Israel, we set about to find the "right" apartment. It was a thrilling and challenging experience, as well as a historic process - I'm the first member of my family to own property in the Jewish Homeland in two thousand years! We wanted to make the right decision, and so visited and considered many possibilities.

One breezy afternoon, in response to our questions about closing in the balcony and expanding the living room, our realtor remarked with a smile: "You Americans are always thinking BIG. How can I enlarge the apartment? Can I dig out a basement? Can I build on the roof? Israelis almost never ask these questions and with you, they come only a few moments after 'Hi, How are you?'"

We laughed and guessed that perhaps we were spoiled: America is a large country and its private residences are quite large, while, Israel is a small country and, despite impressive economic growth, average Israeli homes are on the whole, shall we say, "cozy."

However, later on in the day, as I reflected on the realtor's comments, I realized that our big-thinking referred to more than just the size of an apartment. The entire Western World, almost, is caught up in Big-Think. We discuss global events. We read and hear about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We look for high-profile jobs with large and growing companies. Movie stars, politicians, athletes, musicians, and television actors - none of whom would recognize us on the street - are nevertheless quite central to our lives. The corporate tycoon is, incredibly, more respected in our culture than the high school teacher. After all, the tycoon gets paid big numbers, while the teacher does not.

But is bigger actually better?

Paul Johnson's fascinating book, The Intellectuals, is an amazing expose` of the hypocrisy of many of the "progressive" intelligentsia, the "greatest minds" of the modern world, including Rousseau, Hemingway, Tolstoy, and many more. In the lives of these famous personalities, the same pattern reveals itself over and over again: Famous thinker writes, talks, and preaches about grand ideas; his or her vision would change the world and solve the world's problems, if only society would listen; the thinker is "in," radical, and revered, as he or she attracts a huge following, and is proclaimed a visionary against the primitive understandings of ancient traditions, norms, and beliefs; the thinker dies a martyr, or at least a hero, and is resurrected in high school courses, college dissertations, and the entire "intellectual" canon. Yet Johnson wrote the book to reveal an amazing correlation - it seems that often the bigger and more radical their ideas, the more morally bankrupt their lives were. 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'Eliahu. 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.

A yeshiva student once saw a great rabbi stop in the street, pause for a moment, and then turn around and go back to the study hall from where he had just left. The rabbi was only inside a moment, then returned on his way. The student was perplexed and managed to find out that his revered teacher had only returned to the study hall in order to return a book to the shelves. Think about it - the rabbi (known as the Steipler) was one of the greatest rabbis of his generation, with enormous pressures on his time. He regularly dealt with many issues of vital importance to the survival of the Jewish People. Yet he felt it was important for him to go back and return the book he had forgotten to put on the shelves, because other peoples' time was also important. He was a big person who didn't ignore small things.

There is a traditional Jewish understanding that you measure how big a person is, meaning how refined and developed their personal character traits are, by how they deal with the small things in life. Of course Jews are supposed to be concerned about the entire world, and knowledgeable about things that affect it. And sometimes one can help many individuals by acting on a grand scale rather than an individual one, but it is all too easy to focus on big matters concerning humanity as a whole, and ignore small matters such as one's spouse, children, neighbors, and colleagues.

Judaism teaches that you measure a person by the small things, not the big ones. Is a person honest? Caring? Responsible? Is he or she trying to improve their character, to find meaning in everyday life? If so, even their names never appear in the newspaper, and even if their salary is low, they are not small people. Rather, in terms of the things that really count, they are even more than big - they are great.

Doron Kornbluth edited Jewish Matters and co-edited (with his wife Sarah Tikvah) "Jewish Women Speak". (



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