Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tazria-Metzora

Public figures appear to speak with increasing regularity and extraordinary confidence about God’s ways.  How can one be so sure about such mysteries?  How can a human being be certain about God’s judgments?

This week’s Torah portion speaks at great length about leprosy, a disease seen in ancient times as divine punishment.  The Torah advises the following if one’s house becomes infected:  “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict a leprous plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”  (Leviticus 14:34-35)

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, suggests this interpretation: “Even if he is a scholar and knows the exact definition of a leprous plague, he must still use the phrase, ‘like a plague,’—for a person is never able to tell whether what is happening to him is a curse or an event.  All he can say is that it looks like a curse….” (Sacred Fire, Metzorah, April 13, 1940)

Who in fact is to say that such a disease is a punishment from God?   Such things are beyond human understanding.   They remain a mystery.  Yet many speak confidently of God’s ways.  And many people blindly follow such prognosticators. 

Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and author, writes: “It is, therefore necessary to be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders: we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgment and our will.  Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion.  It is better to renounce revealed truths, even if they exalt us by their splendor or if we find them convenient because we can acquire them gratis.  It is better to content oneself with other more modest and less exciting truths, those one acquires painfully, little by little and without shortcuts, with study, discussion, and reasoning, those that can be verified and demonstrated.” (The Reawakening)

Truth is revealed not in pronouncements but through hard work.  Discerning truth requires debate.  It requires teachers and students.  It requires learning. Truth is never granted without effort. 

Primo Levi survived Auschwitz. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira was murdered in Trawniki.  Both of their writings continue to be studied.

And I will continue to study and learn.  One day, I trust, glimmers of truth will become revealed.  That trust is my faith.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yom Haatzmaut

64 years of independence deserves celebration!  64 years of Jewish sovereignty is cause for us to fill our sanctuary with music and song!

The Prayer for the State of Israel opens with the words: “Our Father in heaven, Rock of Israel and its Redeemer, bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption…”  This prayer was composed soon after the State of Israel was established in 1948.  Although its original version is attributed to the chief rabbis of the time, Rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Ben Zion Uziel, it is widely believed that the Nobel Laureate, Shai Agnon, actually authored the prayer, especially this opening line.

Agnon remains the only Israeli author to be recognized by the Nobel committee for his achievements in literature and thus the only author recognized by them for his mastery of Hebrew.  In his 1966 acceptance speech he proclaimed in this reborn language: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

All Jews are bound to the city of Jerusalem.  All remain connected to the State of Israel.

Agnon continued: “In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.”

And thus Agnon reclaimed the power of the Hebrew language, weaving Jewish history and a mastery of biblical and rabbinic images with the modern experience.  He reminds us that our return to the land of Israel has restored music and song to our people.  It is our most fervent dream realized.

Israel represents the beginnings of our redemption because it signifies the Jewish return to our sacred land.  There we have reestablished Jewish sovereignty.  His prayer captures this tenant of our modern Jewish faith, the centrality of the State of Israel.  It is certainly not a perfect place, but Agnon reminds us that the chain of history was reclaimed by the modern state and there our faith restored.

The Palestinians’ denial of the Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel is one of the great stumbling blocks to making peace.  Their insistence that Israel represents a foreign, European transplant in the Arab Middle East, that Israel is only about recompense for the Holocaust, stands in the way of many efforts to establish peace between two peoples who both have legitimate claims to the same land.  Denying the other’s claims will never lead to peace!  We must therefore never do likewise.         

It is true that there are many things that are new about the modern State of Israel.  Yet it is also a fundamental truth that its meaning hearkens back to ancient days.  It represents not a rupture in history but an unbroken chain, stretching from God’s promise to Abraham to the modern day Knesset.  Some might become uncomfortable when ascribing such religious meaning to a modern state.  But the danger is only when we begin to see modern events as a reenactment of ancient days.  Then we begin to erode the democratic character of the State of Israel.  Israel must forever remain both democratic and Jewish. 

One can derive great meaning from standing in the very city that King David proclaimed as his capital.  But we are not King David.  And these are not messianic days.

They are only the beginning of our redemption.  And that is a great start, and one worthy of great fanfare and celebration.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Leon Wieseltier: The Lost Art

Leon Wieseltier: The Lost Art | The New Republic
My teacher Rabbi David Hartman often jokes that we should criticize Israel like a mother not like a mother in law.  A mother criticizes in order to refine.  A mother in law criticizes for the sake of criticizing and even belittling.  Even though this is not my personal experience it contains an important lesson about how we approach Israel.  Criticizing with love is the goal.  The notion that our love is negated by our criticism comes from a deep insecurity about our relationship with the State of Israel.  We must criticize.  But we must not only criticize.  We must also defend.  We must do both.

Leon Wieseltier offers these insights in his recent, brilliant article:
So Israel must be defended and Israel must be criticized. Almost nobody any longer practices the lost art of doing both at the same time, with similar emphasis, out of equally intense convictions, in a single breath. Instead there is the party of security and the party of justice, as if the country, any country, can endure without both. The debate is a stale contest in cursing between gangs, a tiresome exchange of to-be-sure sentences, uttered by people with anxieties about credibility, or worse, with no such anxieties at all. To be sure, the settlements are a terrible blunder, but centrifuges are spinning in Iran. To be sure, centrifuges are spinning in Iran, but the settlements are a terrible blunder. When I studied the history of Zionism as a young man, I was impressed by Ben-Gurion’s remark, about Britain’s restrictions upon Jewish immigration to Palestine even as Hitler was conquering Europe, that he would fight the White Paper as if there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper. It seemed almost impossible and altogether correct. There is never only a lone danger or a lone ideal. We should fight the centrifuges in Iran as if there are no settlements and the settlements as if there are no centrifuges in Iran. Welcome to the gang of no gang.
And we must always celebrate Israel's existence.  We live in remarkable times.  There exits a sovereign Jewish state!  But nothing, and no one, is ever above criticism.  And many things, most especially the modern State of Israel, is deserving of our love.

And of course my mother, and my mother in law.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shemini

The rabbis often spin mountains of interpretation from one phrase, a sermon from a single nuance or a new teaching from a seemingly insignificant word choice. The story of Nadav and Avihu contains an interesting example in this long list of interpretations.

This week’s Torah portion describes in brief detail the brothers’ sacrifice and death at the “instance of the Lord.” Aaron’s sons bring sacrifices and are then killed. The Torah offers no reason. Rabbis are left to ponder. Some suggest it was because they brought an “alien fire.” Others surmise it was because God had not explicitly commanded this sacrifice. A number even write that they must have been intoxicated even though the story does not mention such an infraction. The prohibition against priests drinking alcohol while offering a sacrifice follows soon after this episode. And so a thin connection is made between the two.

The list of possible interpretations is endless. The young priests were overly ambitious. They sought to usurp their father Aaron’s and uncle Moses’ jobs. Lost however in these interpretations is a focus on the Torah’s word choice. “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan…” (Leviticus 10:1) It does not say that they took their fire pan. Each stood alone, apart and by themselves, when bringing the offering before God.

Their sin was that they did not pray together. They did not consult each other. They did not even defer to their father. They only saw themselves. They each acted independently. Perhaps this is why they were punished.

I don’t of course believe that death is a fitting punishment for those who lead a solitary existence, whose spiritual pursuits are in the singular. Solitude can sometimes be beneficial. It offers quietude and often much needed inner contemplation. The Jewish contention however is that solitude leads to a death of the spirit. We are never at our best when alone. Even our ideas require others. Otherwise we only hear the agreement of our own voices.

Buried in one of the many recent articles about the sale of Instagram was a comment by their venture capitalist, Steve Anderson. The original idea for the company came from Kevin Systrom. Before funding his venture Anderson insisted that Systrom find a business partner. He worried about the echo chamber of a one-person start up.

Even the greatest of ideas need others to help refine them. If you only talk to yourself about your thoughts and creative impulses then you only hear agreement. In addition if you have been blessed with a healthy dose of self-confidence then too often you hear praise and adulation ringing in your ears. Ideas do not emerge from our minds in perfect form. They are perfected in discussion with others. They are refined by sacred disagreement.
In order for new ideas to become great ideas they require others. This is why professionals need to go to conferences. This is why I travel every summer to Jerusalem to study. There I can sit and talk with colleagues. There the music is not the chords of praise and agreement, but instead those of disagreement and challenge. There, I hope, a few ideas are fashioned into great ones.

Had Nadav and Avihu held one fire pan together their sacrifice might have been received. The fact that it was an alien fire might even have been forgiven. Working together, standing as one, is always better than standing apart. Brothers should be able to stand together, especially when saying thank you to their God.

While solitude is not a sin, greatness is only achieved when two stand as one.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wiesel Rejects Holocaust Analogy

Elie Wiesel Rejects Netanyahu's Comparisons of Iranian Threat to the Holocaust | The Times of Israel
For years Wiesel has steadfastly rejected any comparisons to the Holocaust.  He has argued that the Holocaust is unique in its evils.  There have of course been too many examples of genocides throughout history and even since Auschwitz.  Yet none are the same as the Holocaust.  The Holocaust should only be used to describe one historical event, namely the systematic and intentional destruction of much of European Jewry by the Nazi regime and its supporters.  Loosely calling other evils and threats holocausts or potential holocausts diminishes the meaning and import of the Holocaust.  Such is Wiesel's point.  He said, “Only Auschwitz was Auschwitz. I went to Yugoslavia when reporters said that there was a Holocaust starting there. There was genocide, but not an Auschwitz. When you make a comparison to the Holocaust it works both ways, and soon people will say what happened in Auschwitz was ‘only what happened in Bosnia.’”  The comparison becomes especially dangerous when applied to threats.  Although Iran and its nuclear ambitions represent a grave existential threat to the State of Israel and its citizens, as well as to the United States, comparing it to the Holocaust actually brings about harm by limiting Israel's strategic options.  In this manner the Holocaust is used to belittle naysayers and those who might advocate non-military action.  I do not pretend to know what the best way of dealing with the Iranian threat might be, but calling it a potential Holocaust suggests that only the military option will suffice.  That might very well be the best and only option, but let that be because that is the best strategic option.  Let not our careless use of language limit our responses.  Only Auschwitz is Auschwitz.  Wiesel's caution is well taken.

Yom HaShoah Siren

In Israel there is a moment of silence that marks the nationwide observance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day).  At 10 am the air raid siren is sounded for two minutes.  Many stand at attention, even stopping their cars in the middle of the highway.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yom HaShoah

In our never-ending pursuit of health and fitness we enter cycling races, triathlons and masters swim meets. Even our weekend golf games become fierce competitions as we bet on the winners of each hole. For many, and in particular middle-aged men, even the healthiest of exercise regimens can turn into such competitions. Marathons have become so popular that gaining a spot in New York City’s has become increasingly difficult. Participation in triathlons has increased ten fold, surpassing two million competitors this past year.

Training for such endurance sports, or perfecting one’s golf game, or playing just about any sport these days, requires time, commitment and investment. Despite my well-known passion for cycling and its events, I sometimes forget the primary purpose of my life. Simply put that purpose is to bring a measure of goodness to an increasingly fractured world.

On the days that I forget this command I remember the story of Gino Bartali, an Italian cycling legend. One might think that I admire him for his extraordinary cycling accomplishments. He won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 and the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. In addition he won the Giro’s mountain stages a record seven times and stood on the winner’s podium over 170 times. He accomplished these feats despite the fact that he could not compete during the most promising years of his career.

Yet it was precisely because of what he did during those years, during the years of World War II, that he is my hero. It was during those years that he helped to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Yad VaShem is still researching the details of his story in order to determine whether Bartali merits the designation of Righteous among the Nations, the highest honor given to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. I first learned of Gino’s story from a fellow cyclist. Here are the details of that story.

Gino Bartali began working for the underground in September 1943 after the Germans occupied much of Italy. During this time over 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps.  7,000 died there. His clandestine job was to smuggle documents to a convent that produced false papers for persecuted Jews. And so Bartali rode from his home to the convent, from Florence to the outskirts of Assisi and back again, with these smuggled papers hidden in the frame of his bicycle. He convinced the soldiers guarding the road that he was on a 235-mile training ride. He rode this route at least 40 times. On other occasions he also rode to Genoa (145 miles from Florence), where he would pick up money to distribute to Jewish families.

Florence was liberated in August 1944 so in one year’s time he rode over 10,000 miles. His efforts helped to save some 800 Jews. Only yesterday it was also revealed that Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar during that painful year of the German occupation.

Giorgio, then a young boy, still remembers the day the British entered Florence and he was able to leave Gino Bartali’s basement and walk the city’s streets. “I went out and saw a British soldier with the word ‘Palestine’ and the Star of David embroidered on his shoulders. [The soldier was a member of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.] I went up to him and started to hum the Hatikvah. He heard me and spoke to me in English. I understood that we were free, thanks to Gino…”

Bartali remained humble and even secretive about his clandestine, and dangerous, wartime efforts. On one occasion, however, he offered a few words about his remarkable deeds. Bartali said, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."

Let that be a temper to my competitive spirit and my efforts to ride faster and farther. We must always remember that refining the soul is always better, and far more important, than polishing any trophy.

One of the greatest and most successful professional cyclists understood this. Let his example be my inspiration!

Addendum
One might wonder how the details of Bartali's heroics came to light.  Here is that convoluted story.

Despite the fact that he was secretive about his wartime efforts, he did share a number of details with his son Andrea. As they would ride their bicycles together Bartali would sometimes point out where he had hid in a ravine, but always insisted that his clandestine efforts never be revealed. It was his son, who after his father’s death in May 2000, began sharing what he knew.  Even he did not know all of the remarkable details.  The son only broke his pledge of silence because of an unusual circumstance. Paola Alberati, an Italian professional cyclist and political science student, met Bartali’s mechanic, Ivo Faltoni, who was one of the only people who knew of Bartali’s clandestine wartime efforts.  I imagine that the mechanic helped him hide the documents in his bicycle frame.  And so Faltoni began researching the details of the Italian cyclist’s heroics. The political science student uncovered police records detailing their suspicions about Bartali and revealing the dangers that he faced.  Newspaper stories followed and witnesses emerged.  One Jewish survivor said to Andrea, “I wouldn’t have been born if your father hadn’t helped and protected my parents.”  And that is why we are only now learning of Gino Bartali's greatest achievements.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Omer

Counting is considered bad luck. The tradition counsels that the more we count the more we come to think we lack. How many people check their portfolios and think to themselves, “Look how blessed is my lot!” I suspect that most instead look at their accumulated wealth and think, “Will there be enough for my family?” How often do we look at the people sitting with us at Shabbat services and think, “Look at my friends sitting beside me!” More often we say, “There should be more people here.” Too often counting leads to feelings of longing, of desires unfulfilled.

Yet, on the second evening of Passover we begin a tradition of counting. Moreover this counting is commanded in the Torah. We count the days from Passover until Shavuot. We count seven times seven weeks. We count 49 days—each and every day.

This tradition dates back to our people’s agricultural roots. Passover was associated with the barley harvest and Shavuot the wheat. The intervening weeks were viewed with great trepidation. Will there be enough grain? Will the harvest be successful. Thus we count.

When counting the Omer, we first recite a blessing: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who sanctifies us with commandments and commands us regarding the counting of the Omer.” Then we announce the day. If it is, for example, the 33rd day of the Omer we say, “Today is thirty three days, which are four weeks and five days, of the Omer.”

The question is why in this instance is counting not only allowed but commanded. It is to teach that the freedom of Passover must be linked to the giving of Torah celebrated on Shavuot. It is to remind us that those seven weeks in between leaving Egypt and Sinai were in truth aimless wandering. It is in fact for the exact same reason that counting is discouraged. For 49 days our Jewish lives are unfulfilled. It was not until the giving of the Torah that our freedom gained its true meaning.

The Jewish contention is that freedom is meaningless unless wedded to something greater. Most people think that Moses appeared before Pharaoh and said in God’s name, “Let My people go.” In fact Moses said, “Let My people go so that they may serve Me.” We are not free to do whatever we wish. Our freedom’s purpose is not to fulfill our own desires but instead to serve something greater and larger than ourselves.

Passover without Shavuot is empty. Freedom without service is meaningless.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pesah

It is axiomatic to say that food is central to Jewish life. We love our holiday meals: the matzo balls, brisket, gefilte fish and jelly rings. Such is the customary fare at the seders we will observe tomorrow evening. Yet food is also integral to the Jewish tradition. There are blessings for all kinds of food. We say a blessing before eat fruits or vegetables. The blessing is tailored to whether the food grows on a tree, a vine or the ground.

We say a blessing before eating cookies or cake. “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who creates different kinds of nourishment.” For bread alone, the staple of any meal, we recite the motzi. Regardless of the formula the purpose of the blessings is clear. We are to give thanks for the food we are about to eat. We pause and reflect. Before enjoying our meal we say thank you. Food is an enjoyment. Eating is a pleasure. For these gifts we thank God.

Interestingly none of these blessings contain the formula asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu: “…who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us to…” There are only two blessings over food that contain this formula and that are thus viewed as commandments. We recite them at our seder tables. They are the blessings over matzah and maror, over the unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are the only times that the act of eating is viewed as a commandment.

You might say that the reason is clear. When eating matzah, especially after a week, it could only be an obligation that keeps us searching for new and inventive ways to prepare this unleavened bread. As our eyes water and our tongues burn after biting into the horseradish root it could only be a command that calls us to eat this food, and then again on the second night. “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us regarding the eating of the bitter herbs.”

Still it cannot simply be about their taste. This of course is subjective. There are plenty of people who do not like brussel sprouts or broccoli. The tradition still demands that we give thanks and say a blessing in such instances: “Blessed are You… who creates the fruit of the earth.” The question is why is the eating of matzah and maror commanded. There must be a deeper meaning beyond their bitter and bland taste.

Everything arrayed before us on the Passover table helps us accomplish the twofold purpose of the seder: to remember slavery and be thankful for freedom. Each symbol on the table serves one of these two purposes. The wine reminds us that we are free. The grand meal, patterned after the ancient Greco-Roman banquet with its reclining and dipping of foods, recalls our freedom. The matzah and maror point to our slavery. The central mitzvah of the seder is to tell the story of our going out from Egypt, of our traveling from slavery to freedom.

Only those who are free can eat whatever they like, whenever they wish. Eating is of course a pleasure; only on Passover is it a commandment. Thus on this night we are commanded to eat certain foods, even—and especially—those we do not like. By eating these particular foods we are reminded of the pleasures of eating. By making this night different from all other nights, we remind ourselves that we are free. We do so by eating what we do not desire. The essence of the teaching is clear. You cannot appreciate freedom if you have no experience of its opposite.

In an age of unparalleled freedoms this rabbinic insight should gain even more importance. Too often in our own day we take our freedoms for granted. On this Passover we are commanded to pause and reflect about the gift of freedom.

This is why we are commanded to eat the unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Their message is simple, yet profound. You cannot appreciate freedom unless you taste slavery.

Monday, April 2, 2012

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.