There is an ice cube on a table. It melts at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in the room is 25 degrees. The temperature rises to 26 degrees, and the ice cube stays the same. 27 degrees and it is still the same. 28, 29, 30 and 31 and the ice cube does not change. The room temperature rises to 32 degrees and the ice cube melts.
The work from 25-31 degrees wasn’t wasted, just stored up. Although you only see the results at 32 degrees, it needed all the previous work to melt it. There is no visible difference until you cross the critical threshold and break through that plateau.
This is just one of the amazing analogies used by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. And “what,” I hear you ask, “does this have to do with Shavuot?”
Megillat Rut is a modest account of a woman’s return to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Rut and their bid to obtain food and a husband for Rut. It has always bothered me that we read this uneventful story at a time of great drama, the giving of the Torah. In the past, to reconcile the two I have proposed that we need both the momentous events alongside the small acts. Together they enable us to live our life and serve God properly. Whilst reading Clear’s book, I came to see that actually it is one that leads to the other. Often change seems small and insignificant, but we need to realize that success is the result of a build up of previous actions.
The book of Rut is all about small acts of kindness. Whilst the acts may seem insignificant on their own, ultimately they pave the way to the birth of King David. The way to reach a dramatic momentous occasion like Har Sinai is only though the small acts of Megillat Rut. This is why Shavuot comes at the end of the Sefirat Omer. Traditionally, the Omer, the 49 days preceding the festival of Shavuot are used for self-growth. By using the 49 days properly, change takes place on the 50th day – Shavuot.
Even if we didn’t manage to make the most of this opportunity, making each day of the Omer count, we still have this time before, and on, Shavuot to create a new habit.
“Success is the product of daily habits, not once in a lifetime transformations.” So writes Clear. Looking at the giving of the Torah we see that just forty days later the Jewish people were dancing around the golden calf. Miracles may be life changing but they are not necessarily sustaining. The only way to really change is with small steps, constant habits.
People don’t change overnight, he writes. There isn’t one defining moment that creates successful people, even though it often looks that way to outsiders. Changes that seem small and insignificant make a difference when we stick with them over a period of time.
Clear gives the example of bamboo, which is barely seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground. Then it explodes 90 feet into the air within six weeks.
He mentions a story about a stone cutter who hits the stone 100 times without seeing any change to the rock. On the 101st time a crack is made but it is not just the work of that final strike, it is a result of all the previous strikes.
This is reminiscent of the story of Rabbi Akiva, a shepherd who saw drops of water falling on a huge stone. These droplets had worn away the stone and created a deep hole. Seeing the power of something small and constant on the rock made Rabbi Akiva realize what he could achieve if he was willing to invest the time and effort.
Megillat Rut seems modest and ordinary in comparison to the thunder, lightning, ground shaking giving of the Torah, but it teaches us the way to reach Matan Torah. Small acts of kindness, as we find in the Book of Rut, individually seem inconsequential but lead the way to the birth of King David.
Change and success require patience, discipline and persistence. We need to keep going even when there is no observable improvement. We need to remind ourselves that a shift in one degree doesn’t melt the ice cube but it unlocks a huge change. Which habit will you choose to work on?
“All big things come from small beginnings.”