In this week’s Torah portion, Korach assembled 250 prestigious men and dressed them with tallitot — garments made entirely of blue wool. They stood before Moshe saying, “a four cornered garment requires tzitzit — fringes — and one string must be of techeilet — blue wool; does a garment made entirely of blue wool require a blue string or is it exempt?”
Moshe responded that according to Jewish Law, even a tallit entirely of blue wool requires a string of techeilet in the tzitzit.
One of the ways to explain Moshe’s answer relates to the power of each individual person and act. There are those who see the “big picture,” represented by the whole garment but lose sight of the “small picture,” the individual fringes. Moshe is teaching us that we need to pay attention to both. You know the expression, “He can’t see the forest for the trees”? It means small-mindedness. He doesn’t see the big picture.
But what about not seeing the trees anymore because of the forest? There are plenty of great thinkers and leaders like that. They are called visionaries because they are able to see the big picture that other people can’t. But is their view of small things as keenly focused?
On Thursday, June 25, we marked the 26th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of Blessed Memory. Some describe the Rebbe as the greatest visionary of our time, whose goals and agenda were massive, ambitious and all encompassing, the Jewish leader with the biggest vision. While this is true, perhaps he was also the leader with the smallest vision. He had the smallest concerns and goals.
Let me explain with this story:
In the 1970s there was a young Israeli couple, Michael and Atarah, who moved from their anti-religious kibbutz in Israel to Tasmania, one of the most remote and smallest Jewish communities in the world. The local Jewish families tried to preserve Jewish community life by getting together for Shabbat and the holidays. They had no rabbi, just an ad hoc chazzan with no training. This young Israeli family considered themselves completely secular and did not even participate in these gatherings.
One day, Michael was approached by one of the members of the community. He told Michael that their “chazzan” had moved away and they wondered if Michael could be their new leader since he was the only one who could read Hebrew.
Michael thought this was absurd since he had no prior connection to synagogue or Jewish life in the past. But the community wouldn’t give up. They said they didn’t care what his personal beliefs were. They just wanted his help to continue running the community in the way it had been until now. They kept bothering him until he finally relented.
Slowly, Michael and Atarah started to become closer to the community. They began thinking about the future of their children and the dangers of assimilation. Even though they didn’t want to become religious, they felt that they should begin exposing their children to a few of the mitzvot. They began lighting Shabbat candles and made kiddush on Friday night.
As our sages teach, one mitzvah leads to another. At this point they wanted to learn more about Judaism but there was nobody to teach them. They felt lost and abandoned. Atarah offered up a silent prayer that G-d send them someone to teach them.
A few days later, Michael came upon a man with a beard and a hat standing in the shul. This was a most unusual sight in Tasmania. Michael invited the rabbi back to his home and the rabbi sat with Michael and Atarah for many hours answering their questions and concerns. This led them and their children to a deeper appreciation and commitment to Jewish life.
Eventually Michael and Atarah found out how this rabbi ended up coming to Tasmania. His name was Rabbi Chaim Gutnick and he had received a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe that said that rabbis are so busy with their congregations in the big cities that they forget to take care of the people who live in remote areas. The Rebbe mentioned that Tasmania was an example. Without having any specific instructions, Rabbi Gutnick immediately headed to Tasmania and looked for Jews. By focusing on the “small picture,” an entire family was moved to return to their roots.
The Rebbe — like Moshe — understood that we need to always keep our eyes focused on the “small picture.” The Torah requires us to have the biggest vision for world Jewry while maintaining the smallest vision that can focus on each individual Jew.
A fitting response to the Torah’s message would be for each of us to think of one small thing we can do. It may be a mitzvah that we take on, or, perhaps even better, it may be something we do to help someone else do a mitzvah. But whatever we do, let’s make it personal. Let’s try to be like Moshe and like the Rebbe and let’s not lose sight of the “small picture” too. PJC
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum is director of Chabad of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.