Do the Details Really Matter?

People often ask me, “what mitzvah was the hardest one to take on? Was it covering your hair, or eating kosher, or the laws of mikvah?” I reply: “None of the above. It was the attitude change I had to make, which I still struggle with to this day, even after over a decade of observance.”

“Does G-d really care about this detail?” This is the question that haunts me. Why would the creator of the Universe care about whether I wait 3, 4, or 6 hours after eating meat before I enjoy an ice cream cone? Why does the Almighty concern Himself with which bird is sacrificed for which sin, and the actual materials that go into the building of the mishkan? If I listen to music today, or my husband and son get a haircut, and it’s not Lag B’Omer yet, this matters to Hashem? The same creator who gave us oceans, and mountains, and oxygen? Details, details, details, the Torah is filled with millions of them, and my former allegiance to being Reform crops up time and again. I make Judaism a me-centered religion every time I ask this question: “Why can’t I just do it my way instead?”

It’s been sinking in slowly over the last ten years: to become observant means that I believe that G-d does care about these details, and even when I question a certain detail, I ACT as if G-d cares, because I now believe that if it’s in the Torah, and if it’s been passed along by the oral tradition for thousands of years, then G-d really does pay attention to what I put in my mouth, or on my head, or in my heart. I can’t fathom it, but that’s my limitation.

Yesterday I made a silly faux pas in the kitchen, and it led me to think about this question metaphorically.

I was making brownies from scratch for Shabbos — Ultra rich godiva chocolate fudge brownies. Even though I published a kosher cookbook for those concerned about eating kosher food with less fat, calories and carbs, this recipe was NOT in that book! Nothing dietetic about them. I placed them into the oven to bake and started to clean the kitchen. One finger swipe of the chocolate ganache pan told me these brownies were going to be worth the calories. Then I took another finger swipe from the batter bowl — and gagged. It was one of the worst tastes I could ever describe. What went wrong?

It didn’t take long to figure out that I had mixed up the two jars in my kitchen — one that read salt, and one that read sugar. Long ago I poured sugar and salt into glass jars that sit on my kitchen counter to make it easier to bake without shlepping the sugar or salt out of my pantry. Do you know what brownies taste like when you put 1 1/4 cups of salt into the batter instead of 1 1/4 cups of sugar?

Pretty darn awful.

I had to throw away the whole pan, and as I was cleaning up the mess, I got to thinking. I learned my lesson — my salt and sugar will now be put in dissimilar looking jars. I’ll only make this mistake once. But more than that:

What if G-d has a very precise recipe for how the world is supposed to operate, and how I, as a Jew, am supposed to live my life? Maybe the sugar and the salt look a lot a like, but substituting one for the other results in one lousy tasting brownie.

To be observant means that when I’m tempted to substitute my own ways for Hashem’s, I can remember the taste of that brownie gone wrong in my mouth.

Torah is the recipe I am to follow. Lucky for me, there’s more sugar in it than salt.

Originally published May, 2007

20 comments on “Do the Details Really Matter?

  1. We’re all works in progress. The attention to details is productive in the context of the right overall attitude. Going through the motions without the right attitude can still have some good, even cosmic, effects, but does not accomplish enough.

  2. Stanley and others — when you are perplexed with some Jews being so overly concerned about the details at the expense of being a good, kind person, I am with you 100 percent. The image, G-d forbid, of the guy who rushes to shul to learn and slams a door on someone because he’s in a rush to not be late for minyan, or lots of examples we have all witnessed of frum Jews operating in the world with less than ideal midot, even though they may be fulfilling obligations and performing mitzvot all day long. I was shocked when I first encountered this, as I had some fantasy that these behaviors were for the secular world and that everyone frum would be kind and honest and friendly. I was so disappointed when my kids encountered kids at school doing the same mean things that I encountered in secular school. Maybe we’re not as worried about preteen pregnancy, but our kids still have to worry about bullies and cliques and not-nice behavior. And surely, we’ve all met people, although frum, who aren’t our cup of tea. You seem to be wondering by your question if some people are overlooking the big stuff and believing that as long as they get the details right, they are still doing what G-d wants of them. I think that the real challenge of being an observant Jew is to some how figure out a way to “do it all” – and to raise up kids who do that as well, meaning, balancing the pressures of parnussa and learning and doing all the mitzvot right, down to the last detail, and, all the while, still turning out to be a good decent citizen with a kind heart, despite worries and struggles. It’s a daily challenge, well worth pursuing. No one was perfect in the Torah, and we too are always in process, one day trying to get a particular detail down right about when or how to daven a particular pray, and then another day, trying to figure out how to forgive someone who has harmed us. It’s all one big package, and no one would argue that the details matter more than the midot. Rather, in the perfect set up, the doing of the details helps us build the character we need to be better people in the world. Let’s hope.

  3. Life, is not as oh so simple as oh my gd ive totally ruined the roadtrip.I must have gone day salty terrace as opposed to sugary road.
    Its totally ok though, I’ll just switch simple marked scenic route lanes.
    There are subliminal / subtextual choices that run the gamut from maple sugar/rock candy to candy canes.And rock salt/snow salt to mortons rainy day salt.
    Theres a limit to how many details/variables you can incorporate into manual self programming complicated code.
    And if certain details are messing with the code its best to ignore potential features. As opposed to allowing it to ruin the rest of the coding and global picture.
    I’ve seen “the details” hard trip many a spiritual roadtripper trippin along on a spiritual high.

  4. Stanley,

    I can see that you put much thought into your comment.

    Certainly, I think we can all agree that individuals who suffer psychological and emotional problems should get all the support they need to address these.

    Can you clarify how this relates to the G-d given Mitzvot of Judaism? By details, I assume you are not referring to the guidelines of Torah.

    If there is a subgroup of people who are over concerned with irrelevant details, such as an OCD-like obsession, I believe this crosses the full spectrum of humanity, without regard to religion or observance.

    Can you clarify how psychological/emotional problems and insanity-inducing unimportant details pertain to Azriella’s post?

  5. This is a pivotal difference in the ways that Jews perceive themselves.

    Many have the opinion that it is more important, than the details to be a good and honest person.

    The problem with the detail oriented society that you inhabit, is that the emphasis too often is on these details, many of which are not important, altho not the ones that were listed in some of the posts but that people lose their sanity over alot of this.

    Rather than in some cases, facing and solving difficult Psychological and emotional problems they are too busy with all the details.

    That is where i have a problem with all of this stuff.

  6. There’s a famous little cute thing going around the web where someone sends out an email with out the “dot”. For example, he sends out an email to beyondbt@gmailcom instead of The guy who sends the email, if I recall correctly, can’t undrstand what the big deal is that he left out a small dot. Nonetheless, the email does not get delivered. The little things count.

  7. Azriella, the “Brownie Incident” just goes to show that the details do matter.

  8. Oy, forgive my fast fingers… that first sentance should read: Leah L., I wasn’t frustrated by his behavior

  9. Leah L., I wasn’t by his behavior (I’ve “been there done that” myself), but wanted to find words for describing why I felt the way I did about my own actions. Really, it was the first time I said “No” to doing an activity that I really wanted to do, because it was a Jewish holiday. He never asked me to justify myself, he really is a good person. It was more the contrast between us (which I could almost see as “Old Me” vs. “Current Me.”) I was trying to think for myself why it was that I changed my perspective.

    And actually, there was something even tougher for me to give up when I started keeping Shomar Shabbos. Hmmm, I think I have a new article to submit to BeyondBT! Time to start writing again. :-)

  10. I once heard the following comment from RHS re precision in halacha as a hallmark of a Jew’s behavior. We all know that when NASA sent the space shuttle in space that it was an awesome sight to read, hear about and follow until its safe landing. However, when the Challenger explded, we all learned that it was the lack of precision in inspecting a very cheap part that was the cause of its demise. Similarly, the mitzos of the Torah are the basis for a wonderful hashkafa, Yet, if a tzitis is broken, or a scroll within a mezuxah or a pair of tefillin is broken or we light candles too late, the concept is worthless because we have not applied ourselves and ensured that we are adhering to and know enough about the details so that we fulfil the mitzvos in the most optimal manner. To paraphrase an old GM slogan, halacha is all about sweating the details and then expounding on the concepts.

  11. I hope this isn’t a double post from me. I tried once and the post plum disappeared.

    Dear JDM,

    When I get frustrated by people not doing the right thing, ie., yakking in shul instead of davening, my husband always tells me to just keep doing the correct thing and model by example.

    You may not have the ability to change people’s ingrained bad habits or their decision to choose to behave incorrectly, but you will probably influence someone, somewhere.

    Good job, and stay the course!

    Leah L

  12. This is a great analogy for something I’ve been wrestling with in the last year. I now attend shul on all Jewish holidays, both days (in the past it was only 1 day, on “major” holidays). Last Sept an annual charity event that I’ve been on the planning committee for for the past 4 years had their event on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana. I knew it would be that date, and while I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend, I still helped to organize things, and trained a new person to do my duties on that day. But another Jewish person on the committee remarked several times that he would be going to services on Saturday, but would be at the event on Sunday, that G-d would understand, and support his work for charity. I’m not trying to make him look bad or anything, but it made me think about why I wanted, and in fact, needed to go to shul rather than attend the event, whereas in the past, I would have attended the event with barely a second thought. Your words “to become observant means that I believe that G-d does care about these details, and even when I question a certain detail, I ACT as if G-d cares, because I now believe that if it’s in the Torah, and if it’s been passed along by the oral tradition for thousands of years, then G-d really does pay attention” really summarize what I’ve been thinking (but haven’t been able to find the right words for). Thanks!

    BTW: The chairman of the charity now has a list of when Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur will be on Sundays in Sept for the next 10 years!

  13. Azriella,

    May your life always have more sugar than salt!!!!

    BTW, may I share with everyone reading that, for the first time ever, I will be going (weather permitting) to the local Yeshiva where I learn for Shavous night to stay up all night…I tried it @ home for a bit other years, but never before have I gone to a shul or Yeshiva at that time. Hopefully I will be able to keep my “eyes open” to the ways of Hashem even more!


  14. Shalom Bob,

    Well said!

    It is a slippery slope. One perfectly rationalized transgression today, leads to another perfectly rationalized transgression tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and pretty soon it’s going to get awfully hard to make the right choice, when the wrong choice seems oh so tempting. The yetzer hara is a potent enemy.

    The refrain that always runs in the back of my head is from my favourite of all kesuvim, one that is so depressing and burdensome, it’s dazzling. I’m speaking of course of Koheles, and you have to read all the way to the end to get to the real heart of it:

    …”The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is the entire duty of man.” Koheles 12:13

    The details matter. How perfectly we execute them is one thing. The fact that we acknowledge them and devote ourselves to performing them to the best of our abilities, is quite another.

    Thank you Azriela for a wonderful story and for hitting the nail on the head. :-)

    Leah L

  15. A very important post. Yes, living a life according to halacha means keeping focused on the details. A seemingly small difference in time means that one will not fullfil mitzvos such as Kriyas Shmah. Tefilah, Shkiyas HaChamah and lighting candles before Shabbos begins. I recently saw a beautiful comment by RSZA in this regard. We all know that the Talmud tells us that HaShem held Mt Sinai over the heads of the Jewish People and told them that this would be their burial ground R”L if they did not accept the Torah. RSZA pointed out that it is a burial ground if one if accepts Torah Sbicsav as opposed to TSBP. IOW, Torah Sbicsav alone is all but useless without TSBP.

  16. People have a relatively easy time telling a bad taste from a good taste when they eat. Hovever, it takes a while to develop the analogous “spiritual sense of taste”. In the meantime, the wrong action can “taste” better than the right one.

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