The Power of Thinking Small
Rabbi Leiby Burnham
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
The wealthy are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths. NRA members are said to be born with a pair of six shooters in their hands. Mark Twain, a notorious cigar smoker, once said that he “was born asking for a light.” And it would be safe to say that Canadians are born wearing hockey skates.

Hockey is more than the national sport in Canada; it is a way of life. The Canadian five dollar bill depicts a scene of children playing hockey on a frozen lake. Canadians are taught to skate and hold a stick before they learn to walk. (For the record, no one in Canada says ice hockey, that is a given. Saying ice hockey in Canada will either get you kicked out hotels and restaurants, or get a “stray” puck in your face.) For a country mired in frigid weather for six months a year, hockey is not just an escape, but rather "the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive."

The undisputed greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, grew up playing hockey in his backyard in Brantford, Ontario. He would eat dinner in his skates so he could get back to the rink as soon as he was done. Gretzky not only scored more goals than anyone in history, but he also scored more assists than any other player scored points (points are awarded for either goals scored or assists made). He retired with 40 regular season records, 15 playoff records, and nine MVP trophies.

Mario Lemieux, another hockey great, usually played on a rink his father made on the front yard, but often, the family would pack snow onto the living room carpet so that the boys could practice indoors after dark. He played through battles with cancer, spinal disc herniation, chronic tendinitis, and chronic back pain so severe that other people had to tie his skates. Canadians take their hockey seriously.

It is no surprise that the current prime minister of Canada, The Right Honourable Stephen Joseph Harper, is an avid hockey player and hockey historian. He has been a diehard fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since he his childhood, and has appeared on television to talk about hockey many times. But his most singular hockey accomplishment is his most recent one. Stephen Harper has just finished writing a book on the history of hockey, a book he wrote and researched while also occupying the office of prime minister of the world’s second largest country.

This book was not written by a ghost writer, no one else conducted the extensive research needed to write a book on such an exhaustive topic, it was a labor of love done entirely by Stephen Harper. So how did he do it? Where did he find the time? Harper is a man who has political duties almost 24/7, from state functions, to fundraising, state visits abroad, and most of all the incredibly challenging job of governing a large and prosperous nation. When exactly did Harper write this book?

Reuters reports that Stephen Harper wrote the book in 15 minute bursts, which he tried to set aside each and every evening. This is obviously not a conventional writing tactic for authors of serious historical tomes, most authors need hours of quiet time each day in order to properly write a book, but when there’s a will there’s a way.

Stephen Harper’s book on the history of hockey is a powerful testament to the power of thinking small. We are usually conditioned to think of our challenges as huge obstacles that can’t be overcome because they are simply too big. I can’t lose 30 pounds, I’ll never be able to eat! I can’t keep Shabbat, it would change my life radically! I will never have a normal relationship with my parents, there is just too much history there. Because of that, we don’t even try to work on those issues.

Stephen Harper didn’t think about how big of a commitment it would be to write a book on the history of hockey. He asked himself, how much time can I commit each day to something I passionately want to do? His answer was 15 minutes. And thus he started to set those 15 minutes aside each day, and now six years later he has written an entire book! Surely, he occasionally found chunks of time larger than 15 minutes, such as when he was on vacation, but that was not how he approached it. Had he said, I’ll work on my book whenever I’m on vacation, we probably would not see his magnum opus on hockey history until sometime in 2039. Instead he said, let me start real small, one day at a time, and he done did it! That is the power of the thinking small.

I don’t need to lose 30 pounds, (although my wife might disagree), I need to lose a pound a week. I'm not ready to keep Shabbos but I can start lighting candles every Friday afternoon just before sunset, or I can power down all my electronics for two hours every Friday night or Shabbos morning for some restful time. I can’t have a normal relationship with my parents right now, but I can make a phone call once or twice a week to find out how they are doing, and keep them in my life.

Another lesson we can learn from Stephen Harper (who by the way, happens to be the most pro-Israel head of state in the world!), is the value of time. Time is by far the most valuable commodity in the world. All of Warren Buffet’s billions can’t buy him any more time. There is no way to recycle time we wasted in the past, it is gone forever. But ironically, time is also the most wasted commodity in the world. We kill time. We don’t kill anything else, but we kill time.

Stephen Harper shows us how we can inject value into the smallest increments of time. We don’t need to set aside hours and hours towards goals that we have, we can set aside minutes. There is a famous story (The Maggid Speaks, pg. 186-187) about Rabbi Zelig Reuvain Bengis (1864-1953, Russia-Jerusalem) that illustrates this idea. Every year, Rabbi Bengis would study the entire Talmud, a Herculean task that takes thousands of hours, and every year he would make a siyum, a celebratory meal to commemorate his accomplishment.

One year, a few weeks after his siyum, he announced to his household that he wished to make another siyum on another completion of the entire Talmud. They asked him how he was able to finish the entire Talmud so quickly. He explained that the upcoming celebration was for a different cycle of learning Talmud, which took a lot longer than a year to finish.

He elaborated, "As a rabbi, I'm frequently called on to participate in simchas, happy occasions, such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and circumcisions. Quite often there is a delay; an important guest is late, a relative has not arrived yet, and so on. Instead of wasting precious time, I decided seventeen years ago that I would begin a special cycle of Talmud study during these waiting periods. Recently, I was at a simcha and finished this separate cycle. Therefore I am celebrating with this with another siyum!” This was a man who instead of killing time, brought life into his “dead times.”

Greatness is in all of our hands, all we need to do is think small… real small.