By Rabbi Avi Shafran
I must confess that I’m a hardened skeptic when it comes to most “inspirational” stories. Unless something has been attested to by unimpeachable witnesses or otherwise documented (and that doesn’t mean it appeared in an inspirational book), I tend to take such accounts with more salt than my doctor would likely approve of. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be value, even great value, in a tale, whether or not it ever happened.
Take the story of the Baal HaTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of what today is known as Chabad chassidus, and his encounter with the miser. A large sum of money, the story goes, was needed to redeem a groom being held for ransom. Along with two venerated Chassidic luminaries of the time, the young man who would become the Baal HaTanya undertook to raise the sum, and they went to the only man in town wealthy enough to underwrite the cause. Unfortunately, though, the fellow was known as a terrible miser.
True to his reputation, when he answered the knock on his door and was presented with the situation, the wealthy man responded by handing the rabbis a single penny. The Baal HaTanya, to his companions’ surprise, expressed great gratitude to the donor for his contribution. In the version of the story familiar to me, the door then closed on the threesome. The Baal HaTanya waited a moment and knocked again. When the miser cracked the door open, the rabbi asked if perhaps he could spare one more coin for the cause. The fellow hesitated, disappeared for a moment, and handed the rabbi . . . two pennies, which were also accepted with profuse thanks.
The same thing happened again, and a larger coin was handed over, and again. Like the “penny on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second” puzzle, the sum of money eventually donated by the man was a large one, sufficient to free the groom.
When the other rabbis asked the future Baal HaTanya what had happened, he explained that the miser was not capable of just shelling out the large sum when first approached. He needed to be asked to contribute only a tiny sum, to break through his miserliness. Once that low hurdle was cleared, his generosity muscle, so to speak, had been exercised and had grown stronger, strong enough for a higher hurdle. And the rest was history—or, at least, a good story, one that, true or not, holds great truth.
The month of Elul is here and, with it, the awareness that we are hurtling toward the Days of Judgment. For those who take this time of Jewish year seriously—and all of us should—Elul’s days can be daunting. There is so much that should be part of our lives but isn’t, and so much that is but shouldn’t be. There are resolutions we accepted at this time last year and fulfilled only imperfectly, if at all. And new resolutions that beckon from a better place.
The Talmud teaches (in unrelated contexts) that “taking hold of much can leave one with nothing; taking hold of a more limited thing, though, will succeed” (Yoma 80a, for one example). That idea is true of many things, including advancing our relationships with each other and with G‑d.
Incremental changes are not insignificant ones. A small undertaking, whether in behavior, study, or attitude, can not only be the first in a series but has intrinsic value. Undertaking to learn a new halachah or to recite a chapter of Tehillim each day won’t overly tax most of us. But it will benefit each of us.
Picking a flower to present to one’s wife or adding that hot pepper your husband so much likes to the cholent doesn’t take much time or effort. But small things can bespeak, and can help advance, a relationship.
That’s a good word for Elul: Relationship. The month’s name’s initials are famously said to stand for “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Shir HaShirim, 6:3). What we seek during the coming weeks, in the end, is a stronger, more healthy, relationship, with our Creator and with His other creations.
Each morning of this month, until the day before Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is blown in shul. Rabbi Nosson of Breslov writes that the shofar itself is illustrative of repentance. We blow into a small hole, he notes, and what results is a powerful sound. Small things, in other words, can make big things happen. v
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.