When my wife and I decided to settle in Israel, we set about to find the “right” apartment. It was a thrilling and challenging experience, as well as a historic process—I’m the first member of my family to own property in the Jewish homeland in two thousand years! We wanted to make the right decision, and so we visited and considered many possibilities.

One breezy afternoon, in response to our questions about enclosing the balcony and expanding the living room, our realtor remarked with a smile: “You Americans are always thinking BIG. How can I enlarge the apartment? Can I dig out a basement? Can I build on the roof? Israelis almost never ask these questions, and with you, they come only a few moments after ‘Hi, how are you?’”

I realized that our big thinking referred to more than just the size of an apartmentWe laughed and guessed that perhaps we were spoiled: America is a large country and its private residences are often quite . . . large, while, Israel is a small country and, despite impressive economic growth, average Israeli homes are on the whole, shall we say, a little more “cozy.”

However, later on in the day, as I reflected on the realtor’s comments, I realized that our big thinking referred to more than just the size of an apartment. The entire Western World, almost, is caught up in Big Think. We discuss global events. We read and hear about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We look for high-profile jobs with large and growing companies. Movie stars, politicians, athletes, musicians, and television actors—none of whom would recognize us on the street—are, nevertheless, quite central to our lives. The corporate tycoon is, incredibly, more respected in our culture than the high-school teacher. After all, the tycoon gets paid big numbers, while the teacher does not.

But is bigger actually better?

Intellectual and Moral Greatness

Paul Johnson’s fascinating book The Intellectuals is an amazing expose of the hypocrisy of many of the “progressive” intelligentsia, the “greatest minds” of the modern world, including Rousseau, Hemingway, Tolstoy, and many more. In the lives of these famous personalities, the same pattern reveals itself over and over again: (a) Famous thinker writes, talks and preaches about grand ideas; his or her vision would change the world and solve the world’s problems, if only society would listen. (b) The thinker is “in,” radical and revered, as he or she attracts a huge following, and is proclaimed a visionary against the primitive understandings of ancient traditions, norms, and beliefs. (c) The thinker dies a martyr, or at least a hero, and is resurrected in high-school courses, college dissertations, and the entire “intellectual” canon.

Yet Johnson wrote the book to reveal an amazing correlation—it seems that, often, the bigger and more radical their ideas, the more morally bankrupt their lives were. Almost without exception, these great thinkers, these “defenders of humanity”—full of lofty ideas—lied, cheated, stole, plagiarized, repeatedly cheated on their spouses, abandoned their children, and so on. Their ideas were big, their vision broad, their sights high, but as a rule they were the kind of people you’d get up and move across town in order to avoid.

How is it that such “great” people could think so big and act so small? Judaism teaches that it wasn’t a coincidence. It was, in fact, because they thought so big—or, rather, because they only thought so big—that they acted so small!

How is it that such “great” people could think so big and act so small?The truth is that most of us can concentrate on only a limited amount of things at a time, as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler points out in his Michtav Me’Eliyahu. We should all aim high, but a person who over-focuses on “Important People” or “Important Theories” will often under-focus on the little old lady across the street, or the needs of his or her spouse, or the Jewish identity of his or her children. Someone who is so absorbed in the mega-concerns of the corporation and its organizational needs might easily fail to notice their sick neighbor who needs a helping hand to do the shopping.

My Time or Yours?

A yeshivah student once saw a great rabbi stop in the street, pause for a moment, and then turn around and go back to the study hall that he had just left. The rabbi was inside the study hall for only a moment before returning on his way. The student was perplexed, and managed to find out that his revered teacher had returned to the study hall only in order to return a book to the shelves.

Think about it—the rabbi (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as “the Steipler”) was very busy with many pressing communal matters. He regularly dealt with many issues of vital importance to the survival of the Jewish people. Yet he felt it was important for him to go back and return the book that he had forgotten to put on the shelves, because other people’s time was also important. He was a big person who didn’t ignore small things.

A Lesson for Jewish Parents

It is often in the small things that we learn how big a person really is. Of course, Jews are supposed to be concerned about the entire world and the major challenges of the Jewish people. And yet, it is all too easy to focus on the big things and neglect the small matters, such as one’s spouse, children, neighbors and colleagues.

For Jewish parents as well, often seemingly small things—even things that take only a few moments—can have a major impact on our children’s Jewish identity. What types of things? Here are but a few ideas to get you started:

  • Spend five minutes online to find a Jewish idea to share with your family at Friday night dinner.
  • Talk about news events in Israel. Let the kids see that you care about the spiritual and physical needs of Jews.
  • Spend a few minutes talking about Jewish ethics and self-improvement with your kids, and if you may have acted improperly, apologize.
  • If you don’t yet read Hebrew, sign up for a Hebrew reading crash course. In a few hours, you begin to have access to a whole new world!
  • Call you local rabbi and ask what you can do to “upgrade” your children’s Jewish education.
  • Learn the central Shema prayer and teach it to your kids. The main prayer is a total of six words long.
  • Go to the Judaica store and buy your kids Jewish books and/or games.

One last idea is to choose a Jewish book and read one page a day. Over time, your kids and you will see how little things really do add up, and how a small commitment can have a big impact on our lives.