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Home » Life Is Beautiful, Mishpatim

Mishpatim: The Little Guy

Submitted by on January 22, 2022 – 8:58 pmNo Comment | 360 views

We often think of ourselves as the little guy. There are all kinds of important people in the world who do important things. I am just a little guy and I do little things.

We even back it up with an argument. The more important something is, the scarcer it tends to be. For example, there is only one sun, there are millions of stars, billions of people, trillions of insects, etc. When you see that there is more of something, it tells you that it is less important. If there are so many ordinary people like me and few important people such as presidents, prime ministers, governors, and premiers, I must assume that I am not as important as they. Right?

The Scale of Importance
This rationale is self-defeating, and worse, false. The truth is that the more plentiful something is, the more important it is. For example, the most important commodity for survival is oxygen. The planet is filled with it, and you can get it with minimal effort—all you need to do is breathe. Water is the next critical ingredient, but it isn’t as critical as oxygen. You can go a day without water, you can’t survive for five minutes without oxygen. Accordingly, water is also plentiful, but not as plentiful as air. It also takes more effort to draw or pipe in water than it takes to breathe.

Next comes food. Food is critical but not as critical as water and certainly less critical than oxygen. You can survive for a week without food, but you can’t go that long without water. Accordingly, food is less plentiful than water and it requires more effort to produce than to collect water or to breathe.

Clothing is also important. You can’t leave your home or survive frigid weather without proper attire. But you can do much better without clothes than you can without oxygen, water, or food. Accordingly, material is scarcer than food, water, or oxygen. Also, the labour involved in preparing an article of clothing is much more intensive than preparing food, drawing water, or breathing.

Housing is also important, but all things being equal, you can survive without a home. You can bunk on a friend’s couch, live in a hostel, or if in desperate straits, at a homeless shelter. It isn’t pleasant, but it is survivable. Accordingly, it takes much more effort to build a home than it does to fashion an article of clothing.

The items we need least, are the least plentiful and require the greatest effort to produce. Here I refer to jewellery. Jewellery is beautiful, but it doesn’t even make it onto the list of critical things. Accordingly, it takes much more effort to extract precious metals from the ground and there is much less of it available. If gold and diamonds were as plentiful as oxygen and food, it wouldn’t cost even a fraction of the price.

I think we have made a strong case for our contention that the more plentiful something is, the more important it is. Accordingly, the more plentiful the little guy is, the more important the little guy is.

If this is so obvious, why do we fall into the trap of thinking otherwise?

Value Versus Price
The answer is that we get fooled by the price. When something is plentiful, it is free. The rarer it is and the more work it takes to produce it, the more expensive it becomes. We fall into the trap of measuring value by price. If something costs more, it must be more valuable. But that is a false equation. It isn’t expensive because its valuable, its expensive because its rare and difficult to produce. And its rare and difficult to produce because it isn’t important. And if isn’t important, it isn’t valuable. Right?

The same applies to people. The rich, powerful, and famous are few compared to the little guy. They have more money, power, and fame, but they don’t necessarily have more value. Let’s remember that true value is not measured by price, but by how important we are.

The Chasidic masters would often remind us that we are each critical to G-d. We should never think of ourselves as inferior in G-d’s eyes. G-d made each of us because He needs each of us. He made many of us because He needs many of us. He needs each of our Mitzvot. He needs each of our prayers. He needs each of our efforts to make the moral choice and to make the world a better place.

We often think that G-d pays more attention to the great scholars and pious people of the world than he does to us, the little guy. When I pray, I don’t really make an impact. When the holy person prays, G-d stops and listens. Nothing could be further from the truth. To G-d, the little guy is important so when we pray, He listens to us too.

This teaching is profoundly demonstrated by the dichotomy between the Torah reading of this week and the one we read last week. Last week we read about the dramatic historic event that was transmitted across the generations and changed the course of history. I am referring, of course, to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This week we read a collection of laws about daily conduct and monetary affairs.

You would think that G-d cares much more about the momentous event that stopped the universe in its tracks and changed it forever. But the truth is that G-d cares most about what the little guy does in the little moment of his or her little day. The grand sound and light show at Mount Sinai was all designed to teach the little guy how to make the right choices in the ordinary course of his or her little day—the stuff of which we read about in our Torah reading this Shabbat.

The Fallacious Scale
Often when we measure the value of one thing against another or one person over another, we forget the magnitude of G-d’s scale. We measure the relative difference between ourselves and others and feel small by comparison. It is worthwhile recalling that for all the power humanity holds, for all the beauty our planet possesses, and for all the impact history has had, we are but a speck of nothingness compared to the universe at large, and how much more so to its Creator.

Writing about a particular event in the ancient past, Richard Dawkins once observed, “Suppose that, at the moment of . . . the news of it had started travelling at the maximum possible speed around the universe outwards from the earth. How far would the tidings have travelled by now? Following the theory of special relativity, the answer is that the news could not, under any circumstances whatever, have reached more than one-fiftieth of the way across one galaxy — not one- thousandth of the way to our nearest neighbouring galaxy in the 100-million-galaxy-strong universe. The universe at large couldn’t possibly be anything other than indifferent to . . .  Even such momentous news as the origin of life on Earth could have travelled only across our little local cluster of galaxies. Yet so ancient was that event on our earthly time-scale that, if you span its age with your open arms, the whole of human history, the whole of human culture, would fall in the dust from your fingertip at a single stroke of a nail file.”[1]

When we realize the grandeur and vastness of the universe, we can appreciate that G-d is infinitely more so. When we measure the value of the little guy against that of the big guy (even if our values are skewed), we think we see a gap. But when we stop and realize that we all stand together before G-d, and that He values the little guy just as much, if not more, than the big guy, we can appreciate the fallacy of our scales. We are not each of relative value. We are each of infinite value.

[1] Richard Dawkins, Is Science A Religion? The Humanist 57 (January / February 1997), pp. 26–29.

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