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Monday, 4 January 2016

Smiles are cumulative

Daf Yomi Gittin 20


Just when you thought a city had maxed out in terms of its economic boom, you look around and see how much has changed.  We were recently visiting Rabbanit’s parents in Brooklyn.  When we were first married we lived in the borough for a couple of years; today it is almost unrecognizable.  They’ve built the Barclay’s Center sporting arena, there are high-rise condos going up everywhere, there’s a fancy new hotel and the area is brimming with international shopping. 

Back home in Edmonton, economic plans aren’t very different.  The city has approved the redevelopment of the downtown area, beginning with a new sporting arena, which will be the anchor for new shops and high-end residential developments. 

It makes you wonder, is there no end to the economic miracle?  As cities around the world boom, where is all the money coming from?

Mishnah: One may write a gett (bill of divorce) on anything, even an olive leaf or a cow horn.
The Rabbis sent a message from Israel: If one wrote a gett on a forbidden item, it is kosher, despite having no intrinsic value.
Rav Ashi said: We learned similarly, “on an olive leaf.”
The Gemara interjects: Perhaps an olive leaf is different since it may be combined with others.
Rashi explains: While a single olive leaf has no intrinsic value, if you combine it with many olive leaves, it would be suitable to stuff a mattress or for animal fodder.

When couples initially make the sad, but sometimes necessary, decision to divorce, more often than not, they will set out with the intention to separate on amicable terms.   At least that’s what they say in the beginning.  As a rabbi, I have watched painfully as couples then begin divorce proceedings and matters rarely turn out amicable.  Once they start arguing over who gets what and who sees the kids when, sadly, amicable very quickly shifts to nasty.  If they couldn’t get along and agree when they were married, what makes them think they will be able to do so when they are no longer obligated to one another?!

And yet, there is a mitzvah in the Torah to get divorced.  So, when someone comes along and says, ‘I want to fulfil every mitzvah of the 613!’ we gently explain that it’s simply not possible.  First of all, many of the mitzvos may only be fulfilled in the Holy Temple.  Secondly, many only apply to farmers in Israel.  Thirdly, many apply specifically to cohanim (priests), women, or men – you can’t be all of the above.  And finally, there are mitzvos that you don’t want to fulfil, at least not by choice.  One of those is divorce.  When a couple gets divorced, the Talmud says that the altar in the Holy Temple sheds tears.  That being said, if there’s no other choice, the Torah offers the mitzvah of divorce.

But what does it mean that divorce is a mitzvah?  Like any mitzvah, you could perform it in a nice and pleasant manner or you could do it in a mean-spirited manner.  For example, when you give tzedakah, do you give the money reluctantly or with a smile?  When you get up and daven in the morning, it is begrudgingly, because you have to, or because you can’t wait to communicate with Hashem?  Likewise, divorce is a mitzvah that unfortunately most perform nastily.  But it needn’t be that way.

We have a mitzvah in the Torah, “Love your reia (fellow) as yourself.”  The word for fellow, reia, comes from the same root as the word ra, meaning ‘bad.’  It’s no big deal to love people that you naturally like; the mitzvah is to love people that are ‘bad’ or incompatible with you. 

Why would a fellow write his bill of divorce on an olive leaf or branch?  From the time of Noach’s dove, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace.   There is probably no greater challenge than to love someone you have chosen to divorce from.  If you want to fulfil the mitzvah of loving your fellow with this person that you have every reason to despise, you’re going to have to double and redouble your efforts.  Even when they don’t respond in kind.  That’s the meaning of writing your gett on an olive branch.  It might have no intrinsic monetary value; but the intangible value is priceless.

That’s what the Gemara means when it concludes that one olive leaf alone has no value but, combined with others, it most certainly has value.  How do you put a value on a smile or a warm word?  You can’t.  But if enough people are nice and kind to one another, the world becomes a different place.

Where is all the money coming from to build our magnificent cities?  It’s cumulative.  There’s no limit to the economic miracle when we work together to build.  How much more so when it comes to the intangibles.  The more we smile at others, the more we are kind to one another with a reassuring word, or an attitude of appreciation, the kinder and nicer the world becomes.

You were placed in this world to do good, and to give more than you receive.  Imagine if everyone spent their lifetime striving to give more than they got – with every passing generation, we would have a sum total increase in the amount of goodness in the world!  In other words, hopefully, as time goes on, the world is becoming a nicer, friendlier place.


Making this world a better place is a cumulative effect.  One little smile might not achieve much, but a billion smiles have the power to transform the universe.   May we merit to see the culmination of our cumulative goodness speedily in our days!