Rabbi Karen Kriger Bogard: This is not the time to sweat the small stuff


William Motchan

Central Reform Congregation. Photo: Bill Motchan


This week, we read from Parshah Nitzavim, the same parshah we read on Yom Kippur morning. We are near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, as well as the death of Moshe rabbeinu, Moses our teacher.

Even though the end of the Torah is near, Moses continues to instruct the Israelites on Jewish faith. Within this portion, Moses touches on the unity of Israel, future exiles and the regathering of the Jews, the practicality of Torah, and the freedom of choice. These are not easy topics even for us today.

But what I want to focus on is the very beginning of Nitzavim,  the first part of the first verse, which reads: “You are standing this day, all of you, before Adonai your God” —

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

These words can have so many different meanings and be interpreted in a lot of different ways. One commentator’s response I want to highlight is that of Rabbi Art Green, a scholar of Jewish mysticism and the founding dean of Hebrew College in Boston, who explains the Sefat Emet. He writes:

“Judaism seems to be terribly concerned with specific times, holy hours, particular measures … and all manner of other such careful distinctions and separations. But at its deepest core, it knows that we are ever with God and that time and space themselves cannot touch this constant truth. When it really counts … it is to this truth that we need have recourse, and not only to that of fixed words, places or hours.”

What Rabbi Green is saying is that we have to look at the bigger picture; we can’t just focus on the details. And as Jews, we are constantly caught up in details. Can I eat that? Can I still light the candles on Shabbat? What time are services? How early do I need to call the school to make sure my kids are off for the High Holy Days? Do I have enough matzah for Passover?

Often, we lose sight of the overall, big picture, that we are Jews trying to live Jewish lives the best we can in a relationship with something greater than ourselves.

And this doesn’t just happen in Judaism. It also happens in our everyday lives: the appliance that didn’t work, the workman who came late, the room that’s too messy, the car that’s too small, the friend who didn’t call immediately.

Sometimes we are so caught up in the details of the day that we forget the bigger picture. Is my family staying healthy during this fraught time? Do I have a good relationship with my partner? Am I taking care of myself? Am I being the best person I can be.

It’s not easy to let go of the small things and refocus our energy. But constantly sweating the small stuff of our lives doesn’t leave us enough energy and time and inclination and confidence to work on the big stuff, the stuff we should sweat.

There is a great story I once heard, I’m not sure where, that goes something like this:

Two monks are walking in silence together when they come upon a large, muddy river. There they see an attractive young woman struggling to climb up a muddy riverbank. One of the monks picks her up, lifts her and carries her, putting her down safely. The monks continue on their way in silence, until they reach the monastery.

At nightfall, the other monk finally blurts out: “How could you have done that? We aren’t allowed to look at, let alone touch, a woman! What have you done?”

“Friend,” the other monk said quietly, “I let go of her at the riverbank. But you, you are still carrying her.”

What are we carrying with us as we move in to Rosh Hashanah? What are those things we still need to work on, still need to let go of so we can look at the bigger picture?

In just a few days, we’ll be told that Adonai will open up the gates of righteousness and justice. So this year, the year of 5782, let’s not sweat the small stuff. Instead, let’s ask for strength and help in resetting our goals and priorities for ourselves and those we love.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Karen Kriger Bogard serves Central Reform Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.