Every Last Crumb

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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.  The circumference of the collider is 16.565 miles, and it contains thousands of magnets. It was built in collaboration from over 10,000 scientists and hundreds of universities as well as more than 100 countries and it cost $4.75 billion.

In 2009, the collider overheated and shut down. Scientists were perplexed and investigated what went wrong. The problem was found at a compensating capacitor, one of the points where the mains electricity supply enters the collider from above ground.  Sitting there was a bird munching on a baguette.  It turns out a crumb had fallen into the collider causing the overheating. 10,000 scientists and $5 billion dollars couldn’t stop the impact of one crumb.


The power and potency of a crumb is at the core of Pesach.  The Talmud (Pesachim 29b) tells us chametz is forbidden in the smallest quantities, and that while in many cases with prohibited food we apply the concept of “bittul” – nullification of a small amount amidst a much larger amount – when it comes to chametz, one crumb is not nullified, even in a thousand parts.


The Meor Einayim (Tzav), Rav Menachem Nochum of Chernobyl, points out that the letters in the words "chametz" and "matzah" are almost exactly the same. The mem and tzadi are in both words, the only difference is that Chametz has a ches, and Matzah has a hay. The only difference between those two letters, a hay – ה – and a ches – ח –, is a tiny little line, a speck of ink. That mashehu of a line seems so insignificant, so seemingly inconsequential it is easy to dismiss. But the truth is that mashehu is what makes all the difference between the words chametz, or matza.


Says the Meor Einayim, the yetzer hara works not by convincing us to violate a major boundary or commit an egregious mistake.  It works perniciously by telling us that something is only a mashehu, it’s tiny, insignificant, what difference does it make?  What does it matter if you come a bit late to shul or schmooze a little during davening?  Does Hashem really care if a mashehu of what you declare as a business expense aren’t really?  Is a mashehu of lashon hara really going to hurt anyone? 


Slowly, those small things add up until a person doesn’t recognize himself anymore.  On Pesach, chametz is assur b’mashehu to teach us how important everything, even what seems so small, truly is.  One crumb can bring a $5 billion dollar machine to a grinding halt, and one crumb of yetzer hara can corrupt an invaluable neshama.


The Be’er Heitev in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch quotes the Arizal who says that a person who is careful about a mashehu, a negligible amount of chametz on Pesach, is guaranteed not to make a mistake the whole year.


I don’t read this statement as a metaphysical promise as much as a strategy for change.  If over Pesach you can learn to be disciplined even about the “mashehu”s of life, if we can learn not to dismiss or minimize the small things, we will live our most disciplined selves.


Don’t underestimate the impact of a crumb.  One mashehu, a drop of ink, is the difference between a hay of matzah and a ches of chametz.  Don’t let the yetzer hara convince you not to care about the mashehu


But maybe the message of Pesach is not only the danger and damage of even a crumb, a mashehu. If a mashehu matters, if it can make all the difference, then isn’t it true that a mashehu of a mitzvah or of a good thing also matters, it means something, it makes a difference.  The meaning of mashehu works in both directions. 


The typical approach to self-improvement or changing habits is to set a large goal, then try to take big leaps to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible. But this method often ends in burnout, frustration, and failure. Instead, focus on a mashehu at a time, continuous but steady, slow, incremental improvement.


It is so easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better decisions on a daily basis.  Making mashehu improvements isn't going to make headlines, but it makes a difference.


In the Haggadah, we recite: וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ. שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ.  Tzaddikim say what is amad aleinu l’chaloseinu, what stands to destroy us? An attitude of she’lo echad bilvad, I am just one person, this is just one mitzvah, this is just one daf of Gemara, one perek of Tehillim, one dollar of tzedakah, one moment of being my best.  An attitude of echad bilvad, it is just one thing, something small, inconsequential, it doesn’t matter, that attitude stands to destroy us.


We have to realize a crumb can destroy, a mashehu of chametz is assur, but a mashehu of a mitzvah, a mashehu, a moment of nobility, righteousness, discipline, spirituality, moves the cosmos, can change the world, can change your life, and that of your family.


This Pesach, as we sit at our Seder tables, hostages are still being held, soldiers are still fighting on our behalf.  While we mark our freedom, some are in shackles and others are heroically fighting to liberate them.  After more than six months of this war and this situation, fatigue can set in, and it feels hard to sustain the intensity of prayer, contributions, advocacy, and earning merits.  Now is when it is critical to remember that even a mashehu, a small measure of effort, of caring, of prayer and connection matter.


This past week, Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles with the intent to cause severe harm and damage to our people and our homeland. While the swift and successful defense by Israel and its allies seemed almost matter-of-fact, the minimal damage caused by the attack was nothing short of miraculous. If one Iron Dome radar-guided missile is off by a mashehu, the attacking missile could cause catastrophic loss of life. Similarly, none of us know how much of Hashem’s benevolence is due to the merits of our own mashehu contributions, our small acts of learning, davening, kindness, and righteousness.


A mashehu of mitzvos matters to Hashem and is measurable over time in us. Like the Jews in Egypt, many of us are enslaved, not to external oppressors but to our own habits and patterns, between us and Hashem, us and others, or even with ourselves.


In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is a mashehu, 1 percent better or mashehu, 1 percent worse. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don't. In Atom Habits, James Clear shows that if you get one percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.


In one of the most inspirational stories in Shas, Chazal describe how Rebbe Akiva was a shepherd, a laborer, an am ha’aretz. At age 40, he didn’t even know how to read the aleph-beis. One day, while sitting by a brook, Akiva noticed a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a drip, it was a mashehu, but it was constant – drop after drop after drop. Akiva observed something incredible: A hole had been carved out by that steady drip of water. He wondered how that could be. He concluded: If something as soft as water can carve a hole in solid rock, how much more so can words of Torah – which is hard as iron – make an indelible impression on my heart.


That marked a turning point in Rebbe Akiva's life. He committed himself to Torah study and went on to become the greatest sage of his generation, producing 24,000 talmidim and later a group of students who were the transmitters of Torah Sheb’al Peh.  Akiva became Rebbe Akiva because he noticed a mashehu of water and grew a mashehu at a time.

This Yom Tov we are pledging to liberate ourselves from bad habits, to make meaningful changes.  We are dedicated to do so in the merit that the matzav for our people improves, that miracles of salvation happen in our days.  If you want to change the way you live, how you learn, daven, treat others, it isn’t by hoping to wake up one morning and being radically different. 


One crumb can shut down a collider and one crumb can start up your life. Make the decision to grow a mashehu, 1% each day, and by next Pesach you will be at least 37% better.