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Tzav Sermon

Years ago I was attracted to Buddhism and in particular the Zen masters.  Then I discovered some of the vows that were required of them so that was a short lived fascination.  Nonetheless my attraction was about the sanctification of the everyday that I saw in Zen.  Even the most mundane activities can be infused with holiness.  That is the point of the Buddhists’ beautiful rock gardens.  Even the everyday is holy.  It might be better to say that their perspective is that holiness is more often found in the ordinary, everyday than in sanctuaries and cathedrals.  You can find it here in what you must do today.  You need not search elsewhere; you need not travel far.

That was when I also realized that I did not have to look elsewhere for such teachings.  They are found as well in our Jewish tradition.  Such ideas are especially prevalent in the Hasidic masters.  Martin Buber writes in Hasidism and Modern Man.  (This book continues to be one of the most influential books in my spiritual life.)  “In life, as Hasidism understands and proclaims it, there is, accordingly, no essential distinction between sacred and profane spaces, between sacred and profane times, between sacred and profane actions, between sacred and profane conversations.  At each place, in each hour, in each act, in each speech the holy can blossom forth.”

I need not search in other traditions for this important understanding of the spiritual life.  Everything can be infused with holiness.  There is no sharp line between religious and not religious, between the holy and ordinary.  This line is part of the difficulty of religious life in our own day.  People tend to draw lines between business and home, between synagogue and street.  But there need not be any such distinctions.  All of life can be infused with the holy.

That was part of the power of the sacrifices we read about in this week’s portion.  They were hands on.  You had to carry your sacrifice to the altar.  You had to bring your unblemished animal to the priest.  You could in a word, touch and feel your prayer.  You took this ordinary, everyday, valuable animal and transformed it into a prayer.

Today we don’t of course slaughter animals on the altar.  And I am thankful that my job does not involve killing your animals.  But we have lost something in the move from animal sacrifices to the prayerbooks’ words.  While we hold on to the prayerbook, we can’t hold these words.  Our prayers appear ephemeral and perhaps other worldly.  They appear to belong only in the synagogue.  They should only be sung by a cantor or read by a rabbi.  The ideal spiritual life then appears to be divorced and set apart from the everyday.  But Judaism seeks to bring these prayers into the everyday.  They should not remain here.  They must not remain here.  They should be spoken and sung by everyone.  They should be heard in each and every place.

Let’s look at but one example.  The blessings for eating illustrate this point.  You are supposed to say a blessing before you eat anything.  Everyone is familiar with the motzi.  “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”  Less familiar is the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing recited after eating a meal.  A meal is so significant that is wrapped in blessings just like the morning’s Torah reading.  If you want to see what Judaism deems really important see what we have a blessing for both before and after.  These are enveloped in blessings.  The Torah reading and a meal are but two examples.

The question is: why do we say these blessings?  The blessing before serves to raise our awareness.  We pause and give thanks before eating.  Unlike animals we don’t just eat to satisfy hunger.  We can also give thanks.  We reaffirm this with the blessing that follows our meal.  We give thanks to God again and again.

There is an even more important reason why we say these blessings.  The rabbis argued that when the Temple was destroyed and with it the sacrificial system we had to move the altar to another place.  The synagogue service came to replace the sacrifices of old.  But even more important the home came to also replace the Temple.  The table where we sit to eat our meals became an altar.  We transformed the ordinary, everyday act of eating into something holy.  It was no longer just eating, it was a meal.  Our tables became altars.  Our homes became sanctuaries.

Everything is holy, even eating.  Every place is holy, especially our homes.  The power of this worldview is that there are things in all of our lives that we have to do and that we don’t like to do—not eating of course, but perhaps gardening, or cleaning.  I would not suggest that you have to like chores or menial labor.  You don’t have to love to do such things.  But if you refrain from calling them unholy or beneath you, as something that you must never do, then even the tedium and chores are transformed.  Then even the most mundane is sanctified.  Everything contains a spark of holiness.

If you think that you might only find such sparks in a synagogue or a service, or a grand and beautiful destination, then you will miss seeing it each and everyday.  If you wait for the spark to unfurl itself when you travel from your home or go out to a fancy restaurant then you will miss seeing it standing before you in your home.  Such sparks are not just found at the Grand Canyon or Le Bernardin.  They are in the here and now.

Back to the ashes that someone had to bend down and remove from the sacrificial pit.  Not a great job I would imagine.  But even that was done by the same priest who offered the sacrifices.  The priest was privileged to do the lofty and he also had to do the lowly.  The distinction as seeing one job as privileged and the other as a burden was not his worldview.  Both tasks were holy.

The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, teaches: “The commandment here to remove the ashes hints that as we burn up the waste in our lives we are uplifted each day, and then we are given new light.  This redemptive process is with us every single day.”  The removal of ash made room for the fires to burn.  Likewise we must make room for our fires to burn, for our passions to ignite.

It is here.  It can be found today.  Sparks of holiness are no longer in sacrificial fires.  But they are also not just here in these songs and prayers.  They are to be found each and everyday.  They are to be found in our homes, in the everyday tasks that we perform.

It is only a matter of not calling them tasks or burdens.  It is as simple as seeing each and every moment, each and every job as holy.