The following is my submission for Mekor Chaim: Bereshit and was published by the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet.
I am not sure if rabbis are supposed to have favorite rituals. We are, I am told, supposed to promote all. Nonetheless mine is havdalah. It is beautiful in its simplicity. It touches all the senses. There is the taste of sweet wine, the smell of fragrant spices and the light of the braided candle.
It is also because of its meaning, encapsulated in its closing blessing, that I adore this ritual. “Blessed are You Adonai our God who separates sacred from ordinary, light from darkness…” Its meaning echoes this week’s creation story. “God separated the light from the darkness…” In Genesis 1 God not only creates by word, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” but also by separating, by the act of havdalah.
By making distinctions we imitate God and create. It is by this act that we create Shabbat holiness. Some argue that Shabbat exists whether we recognize it or not. I believe however that it is in our hands to create this day and mark it as holy. While other holidays are dependent on the seasons and the moon, the seventh day is dependent on our counting. We number the days: first day, second, third… and then name the seventh, Shabbat.
What differentiates humans from animals is our ability to draw these distinctions and to each and every day make havdalah. This act of havdalah is the defining characteristic of humanity. This is mine. That is yours. This is my home. That is your house. This is my land. That is your state.
Havdalah exists in the moral realm as well. It is in our hands to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, friend and foe. This of course is the monumental task of living our lives and much more challenging than carving out a seventh day of rest. Each and every day we are confronted with difficult moral choices.
Often we cannot run to parents, friends and even rabbis. We must decide ourselves. We must choose. Will we cut legal corners in our businesses so that we might increase profit during these trying economic times? Will we speak hurtful words so soon after renouncing them on Yom Kippur? Will we shut our hands to the poor and hungry when there are so many in this great land who stand in need?
Yet we are not entirely alone in making our choices. We are aided by our tradition. We are guided by our Torah. Its wisdom helps us to differentiate right from wrong, good and evil. We must not be afraid from drawing such distinctions. We must adhere to the law even when we find it flawed, reducing our income. We must do our utmost to avoid even listening to gossip. We must not favor our vacations and retirements over the needs of the hungry who stand before our eyes.
It is by separating right from wrong that we imitate God. It is by doing so that we carve out the path of the righteous. This is our daily task.
As we smell the spices, reach out towards the flame and taste the wine let us recall that making havdalah each and every day is what makes us human and what allows us to live in the image of God.