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The effect of technology of the world is indisputable. It has disrupted entire industries – Uber in the car hire industry, Airbnb in the rental market, and, of course, Apple in the area of handheld devices.
But technology has also had a quieter, more subtle effect on the world: it has improved efficiency, access to information, and the way we communicate day-to-day.
Now, if we were asked: which of these two effects is greater – the big, sweeping technology leaps, or the smaller, more gradual steps – we might pause for thought. There are certainly good arguments either way.
Rosh Hashanah is fast approaching, and our focus is increasingly on teshuva. We are looking inwardly at our aveiros (sins) and deciding a game plan for the year ahead.
So, which aveiros should we tackle? Which mitzvos should we take on? Should we focus on the big, sweeping changes, or small changes to our lives?
Many of us may have heard the pre-Rosh Hashanah drasha, where we are told that we are a weak generation, and therefore we should only focus on changing ‘small’ things in the year ahead. This may certainly be true, but we may have a more compelling reason to focus on the small mitzvos, as opposed to the larger ones.
Let’s say Chaim has before him two mitzvos of equal weight. One is very easy for him to do (it comes naturally to him, he enjoys it, etc), whereas the other is a real challenge. All other things being equal, he will get a greater reward for the ‘harder’ mitzvah, i.e. the one that took more effort. Now, this seems obvious, but why is this the case? Why is it that, when the challenge is greater, so is the reward? There are several answers to this question, but less us apply the following logic:
- Where a temptation is relatively easy to overcome (i.e. there is a ‘small’ aveirah which you should avoid), there will be a high expectation that you should succeed, and so a relatively small reward when do you in fact achieve. And there will also be a greater punishment should you fail.
- When the situation is more challenging, there is a lower expectation that you should triumph, and so a higher reward when you do. But should you fail, the punishment will not be as great.
Following this logic, we can see that the greatest threat of punishment and failure is where we trip up on the small things. And so, it seems, this is what we should be working on.
If someone has decided to work on their middah of anger, perhaps the initial focus should not be on the occasional big times where an individual is pushed to the brink and explodes in a fit of rage – here, the odds were stacked against them, they had unbearable strain, and snapped: this is a significant challenge, and so less is expected of us. Instead, this person should start by focusing on all the small times where their anger might be triggered, but which are relatively easy to overcome. Say, each time the train is delayed or a car cuts in front of you. Here, much more is expected of us, and the penalty is failure is higher.
With this in mind, we might use the following strategy to target the ‘small things’ and achieve real growth:
- Identify one mitzvah/aveirah which you will work on. This should be a mitzvah that has a large knock-on effect on other areas of our avodas Hashem. For example, it might be that our laziness is ruining our entire day: we don’t get up on time in the morning, and therefore we don’t go to davening, we are late for work, and don’t use our time wisely throughout the day. Or perhaps something triggers our anger at the beginning of the day, and this affects our interactions with people and our ability to focus and achieve for the rest of the day.
- Compartmentalise this mitzvah. Rav Yisroel Salanter provides an interesting chiddush that it is possible to ‘compartmentalise’ a mitzvah, and do teshuva on part of it.
- Distinguish big from small. Within this one mitzvah, identify the ‘big’ challenges (less frequent, but higher stakes) and the ‘small’ ones (more common, and often regarded as less important).
- Focus on the small things. Work hard to act correctly in these scenarios. This is usually the majority of the time, and so we will, in effect, be performing teshuva on the ‘majority’ of that mitzvah/aveirah.
We hope that the above provides some interesting ideas as well as some real practical steps for action.
We can use the strategy we have developed as our own type of spiritual disruptive technology, genuinely changing the way we serve Hashem and our relationship with him.
K’siva v’chasima tova!
The Working Jew
 This idea is based on, and extrapolated from, a shiur given by Rabbi Avrohom Zeidman on 26 September 2016.