Many years ago I gave my sixth-graders a writing assignment for homework. Then the negotiations began; they wanted to know the bare minimum that they could get away with.
I could always count on someone asking how long it needed to be. Long enough to answer the question, I would explain, but no extra points for rambling. I'm not counting words.
One student asked me a question that took the cake. Does it matter if he writes the essay on a piece of paper that's ripped?
"Everything matters," I replied. "Some things matter more than others. Content matters more than the presentation, but everything matters."
There's a small child inside every adult. Most people have learned to hide their childish mentality under a veneer of sophistication and intellectualism, but if you peel off the outermost layer it's the same shtick.
Children and adults alike need to feel that a task is worthy of the effort. The most common challenge I received from my students was "Why do we need to know this?" Whenever possible, I tried to make the lesson relevant. Sometimes the answer was "You will probably never need to use this information, but right now you need to learn it for the state exam."
Adults are no different. We need to feel that our actions matter, otherwise we lose motivation. Indeed, the Torah forbids giving a servant a pointless task (Bamidbar 25:43) because this is dehumanizing, a form of psychological torture. Even a servant should be able to point to his work at the end of the day and feel a sense of accomplishment.
It's no different when it comes to our avodas Hashem. One of the tricks of the yetzer hara is to convince us that our actions don't matter. "You can't change the world," he tells us, so don't bother with that initiative you had in mind. Of course, it isn't our responsibility to complete the job, only to do the task at hand and leave the master plan to Hashem (Avos 2:16) – but it's easy to forget that.
One of the best examples of this comes from this week's parsha. The Ohr Hachaim on Bamidbar 14:24 writes as follows:
עוד יתבאר הכתוב על זה הדרך עקב אשר עשה ב' דברים טובים, א' היתה רוח אחרת עמו פירוש שלא הלך אחר עצת המרגלים, והב' וימלא אחרי שהשתיק העם וסתר דברי המרגלים, ושתים שלם לו ה', אחד והביאותיו וגו', ב' יורישנה
The pasuk can further be explained in the following manner. Because he [Calev] had done two good things – one, that he had a different spirit with him, meaning that he didn't go after the plot of the spies, and two, that he went fully after Me, that he silenced the people and contradicted the words of the spies – Hashem repaid him with two rewards: one, “and I will bring him to the land”, and two, “he will inherit it”...
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Calev's efforts, heroic as they were, completely failed! It was ten spies against two, and the game was lost before Calev opened his mouth. His words had no effect on the people. He succeeded only in endangering his life. Hashem intervened to prevent the Jews from stoning him for telling the truth they didn't want to hear.
Calev was no fool; he knew there was virtually no chance he would convince the people. They had the same closed-minded, fear-driven hysteria we've seen all around us, and they were following “the majority of experts and rabbis” to boot. He could have simply “abstained from the vote”, since his vote wouldn't count anyway, and avoided unnecessary danger.
But Calev didn't concern himself with this. It wasn't his responsibility to change anyone's mind (which is impossible) or control the outcome of his efforts (ditto) but to stand for truth and protest the desecration of God's name. So what if no one listened? That was their problem. If he couldn't save them, at least he saved himself.
Hashem rewarded Calev not for convincing those who could not be convinced, but for taking a stand irrespective of the result. Hashem rewarded Calev for choosing not to follow the evil spies, despite the inconvenience of being in the extreme minority, and rewarded him additionally for contradicting the spies, despite being rejected by the people.
Calev might not have convinced anyone, but he earned himself an exemption from the death sentence imposed on his generation, a special inheritance in the land, and everlasting prestige. It seems his efforts were worth it, after all.
Either everything matters, or nothing matters. If some actions are meaningless, then everything we believe is important can be compromised and eventually discarded altogether. This is the way of the yetzer hara, which ultimately leads to heresy and idolatry. It is responsible for the nihilistic assault on morality that has overtaken the world, in which the greatest atrocities are rationalized and celebrated.
No Jew or God-fearing person can believe that even the smallest action doesn't matter. Even thoughts matter. Thoughts lead to actions. Small actions can lead to big changes. Even if they don't, God is watching, and He will abundantly reward those who make sacrifices to stand for Him.
Does it matter if a sixth-grader writes an essay on ripped paper?
Does it matter if a regular person speaks up?
Of course it does. Everything matters.