The episode of The Golden Calf stands out as a particularly low moment in Jewish history.
Following such miraculous events as the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea, among other supernatural phenomena, the Jewish People panicked because their leader was running late. They somehow concluded that an idol was the solution to their troubles.
In the aftermath, the Jewish People grappled with the consequences and sought to make amends. One form that took was the half-shekel tax, a mandatory contribution from every individual that went towards building the Mishkan. This act of collective responsibility and atonement symbolized the beginning of their journey back towards redemption.
R’ Meilech Biderman highlights how, among other things, the very fact of a half shekel is itself a symbol that teaches a crucial lesson about the nature of human endeavors and the path to improvement and redemption.
A half isn’t a whole, just a part. But it’s a start, and that’s what matters.
A half shekel is a modest contribution that highlights the power of small beginnings; Jewish thought tends to value gradual, consistent progress over grand but fleeting efforts. Starting with small, initial steps is essential for meaningful change; small actions are enough to overcome the scary prospect of starting over and the fear of failure. The half-shekel, being just a fraction of a whole, symbolizes that even partial efforts are valuable starting points.
Small things add up, and they stack and compound quickly.
You just have to get started.
It is easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better decisions on a daily basis; small things are, by definition, not impressive. They are boring and don’t make headlines. But the thing about small commitments, though, is that they work.
Small commitments work because they are easy to stick to; it’s something worth being intentional about when change is on your mind.
R’ Leib Chasman’s students would ask him to recommend New Year’s resolutions, and the sage would reply that they could decide for themselves but to make sure to pick something they could keep to. After thinking, they would share their choices with their teacher, and he would interrogate them. “Are you sure you can keep your resolution?” “I’m certain.” “Great! I want you to cut it in half.”
Commitments and resolutions don’t need to be hard to do; they just need to be something you keep. In that regard, it’s actually better to start small! R’ Yisrael Salanter, the founding father of the Mussar movement, strategically taught that rather than a whole undertaking, surgically target the smallest element; instead of hoping to pray better in general, set a goal of praying one particular blessing more thoughtfully.
Keeping small commitments is what forms new behaviors, habits, patterns, and routines. The philosophy of incremental improvement is echoed in modern self-improvement strategies. The conventional wisdom is to set a large goal and then take big leaps to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible; such enormous strides often lead to burnout and disappointment. Instead, embracing gradual change and appreciating the compound effect of minor improvements can be more sustainable and effective.
R’ Chatzkel Levenstein intuitively suggests that a human can only be obligated to achieve what is possible within a calendar year, comparing personal growth to a loan that is paid off in installments. You don’t pay a mortgage off in one month; that’s not how mortgages work.
Maintaining basic, consistent efforts is often more fruitful than seeking dramatic transformations. Improving by just one percent is barely noticeable. In the beginning, there is hardly any difference between making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse; it won’t impact you much today. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you soon find a huge gap between people who make slightly better choices on a daily basis and those who don’t. 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.
The journey back from the brink of one of the Torah’s most significant crises began with a simple yet profound gesture of giving a half-shekel.
It wasn’t much, but it reminds us of the impact of small actions and choices that don’t seem to make much of a difference at the time but add up and compound. The small things we stick with are what ultimately shape our long-term trajectory and path forward.
Pick something small; just get started and see how far it takes you.