This past Yom Kippur, the gabbai of my shul was able to get me to do something that my father was never able to.
Let me explain.
As in most shuls, mine has a break on Yom Kippur between Musaf and Mincha, during which time many people go home for a short nap. This year, during Shacharit, the gabbai told me that he was honoring me with the first aliyah at Mincha. (I’m a kohen.) And since Yom Kippur Mincha begins immediately with the Torah reading, I had to be back in shul exactly on time.
While I am usually punctual for services, for years I had declined my father’s entreaties on Yom Kippur in this regard, and extended the break just a bit to catch a few extra winks. This year, though, I was there on time — indeed, a few minutes early.
But my punctuality is not the point of this story. When I ascended the center bimah for my aliyah, I glanced over the mechitzah at the almost completely empty women’s section to see that my wife and daughters had given up their rest to be present for my kibud. Unexpected, unnecessary — and touching. And it brought to mind another, more than six-decades-old shul story, when as part of a youth Shabbat, I, a 7-year old, led the adult services for the initial Birchot HaShachar. Not, mind you, all of Pesukei DeZimrah, just the first five minutes of the very first introductory prayers. Then, too, I looked up at the women’s section before beginning and saw one woman sitting in an otherwise empty balcony. My mother.
We all know of the very real sacrifices parents make for children, and adult children often make for parents. We know of parents taking second, and even third jobs in order to provide a proper education for their children; giving up time with spouses, friends, and their own leisure activities to ensure that their children receive the out-of-school enrichment and sports programs they desire; sitting up all night, or spending weeks on end in hospitals, with sick children. And I’ve only skimmed the surface. We also know of adult children who sacrifice career advancement, family, vacations, and just time to unwind at the end of a hectic day in their over-programmed and complicated lives in order to assist their aging parents in healthcare and other geriatric issues.
Why, then, did the actions of my wife, daughters, and mother, relatively minor though heartwarming, resonate so strongly with me?
One answer can, I believe, be summed up in three words: small things matter.
While they may not take the place of the large things, the significant, serious, time-consuming, difficult, and often expensive efforts we feel responsible for and undertake, they too can touch the heart. It may take only a few short minutes to pay a shiva call that we don’t really have to go to, but it can bring comfort. Letting a fellow shopper with a few items go ahead of you and your overflowing cart can brighten a day. Small things matter.
Every Monday in the New York Times there’s a column called Metropolitan Diary, which contains readers’ personal stories about living in or visiting New York City. And almost always there is one about something sweet that happened to the contributor decades earlier, which the writer still remembers with great fondness. Nothing earth-shattering, just a small kindness, a pleasant remark, a helping hand. Yet these small interactions were indelibly etched in memory, to be recalled with warmth and affection years later. Small things matter.
And because they matter, they can, and often are, paid forward. The young man who saved 10 minutes in the store because someone let him cut the line may be more disposed to assist an older woman in the parking lot as she struggles to unload her packages from her cart to her car. The mourner to whom you paid the “unnecessary” shiva call may more readily spend a few minutes visiting his next-door neighbor recuperating from an operation. And the child who was the recipient of small sacrifices by her parent (in addition to the many large significant ones) often will become the parent who does the same for her children, and the adult child who does so for her parents.
Another personal example. When I was in aveylut, one of the hardest religious restrictions for me was not being able to join in Birkat Kohanim on Yom Tov. I remember one Shavuot, the last Yom Tov before the first yahrzeit for my father, when I left the sanctuary before the ritual began and crossed paths with another kohen, who had just entered the sanctuary after washing his hands. He immediately realized why I was going in the opposite direction and said, “We miss you. I look forward to duchaning with you on Rosh Hashanah.” It didn’t take five seconds, but it was comforting. And not only do I still remember it more than 10 years later, I try to say something similar to other kohanim in like situations.
Small things matter, and they can be paid forward.
And yet. In rereading my “small things matter” analysis, I realize it may be wrong because I may be using incorrect criteria. Perhaps the more accurate way to assess our actions is not to measure them by the time, effort, or money expended, but to evaluate them by the effect they have on others. And using that metric, perhaps there are no small things — just large things and larger ones. To bring any comfort, ease, consolation, tranquility, contentment, or joy to the soul of another is inherently not a small thing. It’s an essence of our humanity. It’s a part of us that exemplifies the tzelem Elokim that we all posses.
It does truly and deeply matter — but it’s not a small thing.