I feel like a lot of parenting is making small changes to daily life that (hopefully) add up to a big shift in behavior. When we had infants, we’d notice that a five-minute shift in bedtime routine could change an entire sleep pattern. As they got older, we learned the sweet spot for nap time and changed our schedule accordingly to fit that need. And when Shiri’s weekday morning routine became problematic, we changed our screen time rule to only once per week. Each shift was minimal in the grand scheme of the work of being a parent, and yet those subtle differences totally changed the way that our family interacts.
There are plenty of examples of minimal changes that produce maximum reward. Trying to stick to a budget? Just making your own coffee two days a week can add up to some major savings compared to the daily latte. Working on weight loss? Trading one junk snack for a vegetable is remarkable. Working on getting more sleep? Five extra minutes of screen-free downtime before bed makes all the difference in the world. Subtle, small tweaks lead to major positive results, and we see the same phenomenon in the Torah.
Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society. Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.
Significantly, the text contains the Ten Commandments. But this is the second time that Moshe shares the commandments with the Israelites, and while the intention and meaning of the commandments largely remain the same, there are a few notable tweaks. Instead of “honoring your father and mother” it reads “revere your mother and father.” Instead of “remember the Sabbath day” it reads “keep the Sabbath day.” Small changes in words that lead to significant interpretive differences. The order of mother and father is switched, as is the verb, to remind us that we should both honor and revere both parents. “Remember” versus “keep” Shabbat is a subtle change that tells us about how we should both guard sacred time and plan ahead for it.
Visually there’s not much difference. You have to be a careful, close, and critical reader of these texts to actually notice the changes that were made. However, these subtle tweaks to the text lead to broad positive outcomes in the society that is being built. Parshat Vaetchanan reminds us that it’s sometimes the small changes that are most effective over time.