It is told that the Hafetz Haim once visited a certain place where he met a Jew who had abandoned religious observance.  This fellow ate non-kosher food, did not observe Shabbat, and engaged in illicit relationships.  He was widely condemned and ostracized by the local Jewish community.

After hearing about the man’s story, the Hafetz Haim approached him, introduced himself, and said, “I have heard all about you, and I want to tell you that I have great admiration for you.”

The man was dumbfounded, and couldn’t believe his ears.

“I was told that you spent time in the Russian army.  I find it amazing that after this experience you still call yourself a Jew and consider yourself Jewish.  Most men, I imagine, would have given up on their Jewish identity altogether after having gone through the Russian army, which does everything it can to obliterate all vestiges of Jewishness.  You are a true hero, and I have great respect for you for still maintaining your Jewish identity.”

The man started to cry, moved and touched by what the Hafetz Haim.  For years, all he had received from staunchly religious Jews was scorn, contempt, and derision.  For the first time, a rabbi spoke to him respectfully and made him feel good about himself.

It is told that the man gradually returned to Jewish observance.

This story has a great deal to teach us about the way we relate to our fellow Jews who do not observe the mitzvot, or who do not observe the mitzvot the way we do.  Insults, angry protests, contempt, and anger are a sure way to further distance these precious souls from the Torah.  Love, respect, and kindness at least create the possibility of their gradually making their way back to observance.

But there is also a broader lesson for us to learn from this story.  It shows us the power and value of every mitzvaha Jew performs, no matter how insignificant it might appear.  We do not normally think of “Jewish identity” – merely calling oneself “Jewish” – as a precious mitzvah.  We take this as something basic and elementary, certainly not something that earns a Jew great praise.  But the Hafetz Haim had a much keener appreciation of the value of mitzvot than we do.  He looked at a non-observant Jew and saw the one mitzvahhe still observed – his maintaining his Jewish identity – and respected him for it.  He understood that there is no such thing as an “insignificant mitzvah.”  Even the smallest action, and even a feeling of identity, is precious.

A Little Bit of Water

This vitally important message was conveyed to our ancestors on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt.

As we read this month, the process of the Exodus did not go well at first.  In fact, it began with the situation becoming worse, as Pharaoh responded to Moshe’s demand to release the slaves by intensifying their workload.  With the people in despair, and angry at Moshe for initiating this process which had the effect of exacerbating their suffering, Gd instructed Moshe to return to the people to convey a message of hope.  He told Moshe the famous “four expressions of redemption,” the promises of the nation’s imminent freedom and their becoming Gd’s special nation.  In the fourth of these promises, Gd declares, “Velakahti etchem li le’am– I shall take you for Me as a nation” (Shemot 6:7).

The Midrash, surprisingly, connects this promise to an earlier story – the story of Avraham welcoming three wayfarers and serving them a meal.  In extending his invitation, Avraham said to the three strangers, “Yukah na me’at mayim” – offering to “take a bit of water” so they could wash the dirt off their feet (Beresheet 18:4).  In the merit of Avraham’s “taking” some water for his guests, the Midrash comments, his descendants were given the promise, “I shall take you for Me as a nation.”  Somehow, the Midrash found a point of connection between Avraham’s “taking” some water for his guests and Gd’s promise to “take” his descendants as His beloved nation.

The Rebbe of Bobov explained the deeper meaning behind this connection, an explanation which requires some background into our ancestors’ condition at that time, on the eve of the Exodus.

Our tradition teaches that over the course of the Egyptian exile, Beneh Yisraelplummeted to the lowest spiritual depths, referred to by the Zoharas “the 49th gate of impurity.”  Egyptian society was especially decadent and corrupt, and the years of enslavement and oppression by such a nation had a spiritually corrosive effect upon Beneh Yisrael.  As a result, the Midrash teaches, they were not worthy of redemption.  Steeped in Egyptian paganism and immorality, the people were woefully undeserving of the great miracles that were needed to release them from bondage.  In order for them to earn these miracles, Gd gave Beneh Yisrael two mitzvot to perform just before the night of the Exodus – berit milah(circumcision) and korban pesah(the paschal sacrifice).  All it took was these two mitzvotto begin lifting a nation that had sunken to the lowest depths of impurity, to the level where they were worthy of supernatural redemption.

This, the Rebbe of Bobov explained, is the point of connection between Gd’s promise to Beneh Yisrael in Egypt and Avraham’s offer to bring water to his guests.

Upon hearing Gd’s promise that He would “take you for Me as a nation,” the people might have, understandably, asked Moshe, “Us?  Gd’s special nation?!  How can we be Gd’s special nation?  Look at us!  Look how far we have sunken!  We don’t deserve to be Gd’s nation!”  The response to this question was “yukah na me’at mayim” – the “bit of water” which Avraham brought his guests.  Water, the Rebbe of Bobov noted, is associated with teshuvah (repentance), the experience of pouring one’s heart forth to the Almighty like water, begging for compassion and forgiveness (as the verse states in Echah, “Shifchi kamayim libech nochah peneh Hashem– Pour forth your heart like water before the presence of Gd”).  The “bit of water” which Avraham brought for his guests symbolizes a “bit” of teshuvah, the small steps forward that everybody and anybody is capable of taking.

Somebody on the “49th gate of impurity” is not likely to leap to the “49th gate of sanctity” in a day, or in a week.  But he is definitely capable of taking a step forward.  At any given moment, he is able to progress.  Perhaps he can move to the 48th “gate,” or at least begin leaving the 49th and making his way to the 48th.  He is capable of doing something to advance and improve.  No matter how low a person has fallen, he is able, and expected, to do something to move forward.  And that something is far more precious in Gd’s eyes than he could ever imagine.  Avraham was telling his guests – and all of us – that the process of cleansing, of eliminating our filth, begins with “me’at mayim” – with just a little bit of water, with just a small step forward.  Of course, it does not end there.  But every small step is inestimably valuable and precious.

How did our ancestors go from being submerged in the depravity of ancient Egyptian culture to becoming Gd’s nation, standing at Sinai and receiving the Torah?  Through “me’at mayim,” by taking a small step forward.  Those two mitzvotin Egypt started the process.  Even if we start small, the important thing is that we start.  That is all that is ever expected of us at any given moment – just one small step forward.

Rahav’s Extraordinary Ascent

One of the most astonishing examples of “small steps” that fundamentally transformed a person’s life is the incredible story of Rahav, the Canaanite woman who ran an inn in the city of Jericho.  Her story is told in the second chapter of the Book of Yehoshua, where she is referred to as “Rahav Ha’zonah.”  Rahav was not just a hostess; she sinned with the men who visited her tavern.

When Yehoshua sent two spies to Jericho in advance of Beneh Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel, they stayed in Rahav’s inn, and she hid them on the rooftop.  Afterward, she helped them escape, and asked them to promise to spare her and her family when Beneh Yisrael attack the city.  The spies gave them their word, and indeed, her life was spared.  But there’s much more to the story.  Shockingly, our sages teach that Rahav ended up converting to Judaism, joining Am Yisrael, and marrying Yehoshua.

Imagine a woman of ill repute, who made a living committing grievous sins, transforming herself into a righteous woman, worthy of marrying the greatest rabbi of the generation!

How did this happen?  What started moving Rahab, a habitual sinner, along this process of repentance?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) offered an answer that should serve as a great source of encouragement and inspiration for all of us.

The verses in Yehoshua tell of the rope Rahav used to lower the spies down the wall of the city from her rooftop so they could escape without catching anybody’s attention.  The Midrash comments that this rope was normally used for Rahav’s visitors.  Ashamed of what they were doing, she would help them leave her home discreetly, outside the city wall, so nobody would know that they had visited her.

Rabbi Schwab suggested that this practice was the “pilot light” that eventually kindled Rahav’s soul and led to her repentance.  Even as she regularly sinned, and lived a life steeped in immorality, she recognized the shame and disgrace of this kind of lifestyle.  This feeling of uneasiness, this discomfort about what she was doing, reflected a sacred spark inside her – and this small spark sufficed to eventually propel her to repent, to join Am Yisrael, and to become a righteous lady worthy of becoming Yehoshua’s wife.

What an empowering message!  No matter how low a person has fallen, he can still take small baby steps which can lead him to the greatest heights.  Even if those steps involve nothing more than feelings of uneasiness and shame, they can trigger a process of real transformation.

One of the most dangerous tricks of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is convincing a person that he is unworthy of doing anything religious.  Sometimes, when people feel inspired to do a mitzvah, to take a step forward in their observance, they hear a voice in their heads discouraging them, saying, “Who are you kidding?  You’re not the kind of person to do this kind of thing.  What makes you think Gd wants anything from someone like you, anyway?”

This “voice” is so convincing because it sounds so authentic, and so “religious.”  In a strange way, we feel virtuously humble when we tell ourselves that we are hopeless and that any efforts we make to observemitzvot are worthless.

We need to forcefully reject such thoughts, and remember that even the smallest steps are precious.  We don’t have to, and should not even try to, become perfectly righteous tzaddikimovernight.  We should instead be working to improve one small step at a time, appreciating the significance and value of each and every small step, and feeling empowered by the belief that each is cherished by Gd.

Our Generation’s Special Opportunity

It is told that Rav Haim Vital (1542-1620) once asked his revered master, the Arizal (1534-1572), how the final redemption could possibly come in their time.  After all, it did not arrive during the times of the Tanna’im (the sages of the Mishnah), the Amora’im (the sages of the Talmud), or the Rishonim (Medieval scholars).  If the generations of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, Abayeh and Rava, and Rashi and the Rambam were not worthy of the final redemption, then why, Rav Haim Vital wondered, would his generation be worthy?

The Arizal’s response is something we should all be reminding ourselves of repeatedly, every day.  He explained to the contrary, his generation had a far greater chance of earning redemption than the righteous generations of yesteryear.  At a time when mitzvahobservance is so difficult, every mitzvah a Jew performs is especially valuable.  The mitzvotperformed in our time, when societal trends are antithetical to spirituality, are infinitely more precious than mitzvot performed in earlier generations, when such difficult challenges did not exist.

Quite obviously, Torah observance in the 21st century is many times more challenging than it was in 16th-century Tzefat, where the Arizal lived and taught.  We live in a society steeped in indulgence and immorality, which militates against self-restraint and disciplined, moral conduct.  Images of sin and temptation are everywhere, and accessible in ways and to a degree that was unimaginable even just several decades ago.  The challenges are enormous – but this means that the opportunities are enormous, as well.

As we have seen, any slight effort we make, any small step forward that we take, is incalculably precious.  All that is expected of us is that we try, that we struggle to move just a little bit forward, to improve just a little at a time.  This is something each and every one of us can do, without exception.  Some people might expect a rabbi to demand nothing short of the highest levels of purity and sanctity, but I strongly believe that I would be abjectly failing in my duties if I were to give this message.  The message for today’s generation is the same message that was conveyed to the generation of the Exodus just before they left Egypt – “yukah na me’at mayim.”  We need just a little bit of “water,” to make ourselves just a little bit better, one day at a time, recognizing the precious value of every bit of effort.

The six-week period when we read the first six portions of the Book of Shemot is called “Shovavim,” and is customarily observed as a special time for repentance – specifically, repentance for matters involving purity.  Some people might find the Shovavimobservance worthless in today’s day and age.  They might think, “Let’s not kid ourselves.  It’s impossible to achieve purity in our culture.  Impurity is too pervasive.  It’s everywhere.  There’s no point.  It’s a lost cause.”

But I say that to the contrary, specifically in today’s day and age, this observance is more meaningful and powerful than ever before.  Today, with the kind of culture we live in and the kind of spiritual challenges we face, our efforts to improve in this area are so precious.  Any slight improvement that we make is worth so much.  Every little bit of struggle is worth more than the lofty level of sanctity achieved by our ancestors generations ago.  The greater the challenge, the greater the reward, even for small, modest achievements.

The great test of our generation is not the pervasive immoral culture per se, but rather the tendency to despair in the face of this pervasive culture.  The challenge for us is truly believing that there is value to our efforts and struggles, no matter how small our successes are.  We need just “me’at mayim,” a little bit of effort.  A person who feels very thirsty and has just a small bit of water will not discard the water because he wants a larger quantity.  He’ll drink what he has so he could alleviate his thirst to whatever extent possible.  Likewise, we need to make whatever efforts we can to grow and improve, trusting in the great value of each and every small step we take.

Let’s not panic or despair.  Instead, let’s meet the challenges with confidence and courage, knowing that every bit of effort is a precious, sacred act of religious devotion.