The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The greatest work of art in history, the ever-smiling Mona Lisa, hangs in the Louvre. Every year, millions of visitors come from around the world to gaze at its subtle beauty, and many of them feel the painting looking back at them.
When Leonardo da Vinci painted it, he worked with the smallest brush he had ever used. The pressure he applied was very delicate and the movements of the brush were minute. If you hold a magnifying glass up to the picture, you can’t discern the individual brush strokes. Yet each stroke was obviously applied carefully and with remarkable attention.
Because da Vinci knew he was creating a masterpiece.
Da Vinci’s technique for creating a masterpiece resonates not only in art, but in life. Gradual, minute improvement over time is the key to the art of life. No matter what you are creating — whether it is your relationships, your health, your finances or your Judaism — if you want a masterpiece, it has to be done one tiny act, one tiny brush stroke at a time. Taken together, those tiny individual strokes make a glorious canvas. As the Torah puts it in this week’s section, all humanity, with its endless diversity and beauty, is reborn from Noah’s little Ark.
A classic study in psychology demonstrates just how large a difference small steps can make. In the 1960s, two Stanford psychologists, Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, asked researchers to go door to door in an upscale neighborhood in Palo Alto posing as volunteers for a fictional “Citizens for Safe Driving” group. The “volunteers” asked homeowners whether they would allow a billboard reading “Drive Carefully” to be installed on their lawns, and showed them a photo of a sample billboard on the lawn of a different house. The sample was a real eyesore, crudely constructed, and so big that it obscured much of the front of the house. The homeowners were assured that the sign would make “just a small hole in your lawn.” As you can imagine, 83 percent of the homeowners passed on the “opportunity.”
But here’s the twist: In a different neighborhood, the researchers used a different technique.
Volunteers approached homeowners, claiming to be from a different driver safety organization. They asked them to put a tiny driver safety sign, less than the size of a postcard, in the window of their car or home. The volunteers said the sign was intended to raise awareness of the need to drive safely.
Almost all of the homeowners said yes to this minor commitment. Two weeks later, researchers came back and asked the homeowners to install the eyesore billboard — and 76 percent accepted it. The second approach more than quadrupled the number of homeowners who agreed to the large billboard.
The psychologists were blown away by the results. They concluded that “the minute sign sparked a subtle shift in the homeowners’ sense of identity. Once the homeowner has agreed to the small sign request, his attitude may change. He may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does that sort of thing, the kind of person who takes action for good causes. In a sense, the small sign became evidence to the homeowners that they were concerned citizens, and this subtle shift in identity led to a shift in their behavior.”
The logic of the billboard study says something pretty remarkable. It shows us that robust identities grow from small beginnings. Once you start seeing yourself as a concerned citizen, you’ll want to keep acting like one.
Other research shows how small behavioral changes profoundly affect how we think about ourselves. A U.S. Department of Education study of more than 20,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade showed the importance of a child’s surroundings for learning and identity formation. The findings; a child who has 50 books at home scores five percent higher than a child with none, and a child with 100 books scores an additional five points higher, regardless of the time spent reading. It’s just a small tweak in the home environment, but it has a vital impact.
That’s precisely the psychology behind the mitzvah of mezuzah. The mezuzah is a small sign on the doors of our home, but it sparks a subtle shift in the homeowners’ sense of identity. It declares: This is a Jewish home — I love my Judaism and I’m proud of it. It causes the homeowner, their children and their grandchildren to see themselves as people who value their Jewish identity. And it sparks a subtle change in attitude because it reminds us that our homes are beautiful holy places, and that we should act accordingly — when we enter them and when we leave them to go out into the world. The mezuzah is a spiritual brush stroke that turns the home into a Jewish masterpiece. It is a Mona Lisa of the threshold.