All of us have a deep desire to connect with Gd. Each and every one of us has had peek spiritual experiences in our lives where, for the moment, that was possible. For some it may have come in shule with the ark opened and the congregation beautifully chanting with a full heart as we just did: Hashiveynu Hashem elecha v’nashuva, “Return us, O Gd, to You and we shall return.” For others it may have come while looking out at the majesty of nature’s wonders like the Grand Canyon or Stone Mt. (just kidding). Still for others it may come after walking away from a terrible car accident unscathed. Life will provide us with these special transforming moments and it’s up to us to use them as opportunities to connect with Gd.
We see many such moments in the Torah: Noah and the flood, Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac or the Jewish people at Sinai. Periodic spiritual peaks are useful to inspire us. But we can’t live on the peaks—the air is too thin. We need to find a way to walk with Gd on the plains. After the revelatory moment passes and the high is over, life begins. And we need Gd to be part of our life as we live it.
After the peak experience of Sinai—hearing Gd speak to the Jewish people amid thunder and lightning and the mountain spouting forth volcanic fire—today’s Torah portion gets down to the business of life. It teaches us that we can find Gd in the world—not only in our peak spiritual moments—but by making the world more Gdly—by living with love, compassion and justice. Today’s parsha is, therefore, a collection of laws pertaining to the art of living every day with Gd: laws of marriage, employment, lost property, integrity and financial practices. Following these laws can bring holiness—a bit of Gd into our lives every day.
What is holiness? Some people, when they hear the word “holy” think of a shule, a siddur, a chumash, tallis and tefillin, a mezuzah, a Kiddush cup and, of course, a Torah—and rightly so, for these are surely holy things. Yet, holiness extends much beyond things. It’s a way of living that brings Gd into the world. Let me illustrate with 3 examples (with thanks to Rabbi Jack Reimer).
Today’s Torah reading deals primarily with things that in other cultures would be considered “secular” matters; questions like: who is liable if an animal gores another animal, or who is liable if a fire spreads from your backyard to your neighbor’s, or what is the difference in the punishment for someone who breaks into a house at night and one who holds someone up by day? Some would say: what do these things have to do with Gd and religion? The answer is that the relationships between human beings are just as much a part of Judaism and Gdliness as the relationship between human beings and Gd. The Torah is just as concerned about the kashrut of what comes out of our mouths as it is about the kashrut of what goes into our mouths, and the Torah is just as concerned about a dollar that has a bloodspot on it as it is about an egg that has a bloodspot on it.
The 2nd example comes from Dr. Tsvi Blanchard, who is a member of the faculty of CLAL the organization that is involved with training future Jewish leaders. Blanchard writes this story about his father-in-law, who was a pediatrician:
One of this man’s patients was a young man named Bryan, who was fighting a running battle against cancer. The procedures that the doctor had to give him were very painful, but he was able to relieve the pain with anesthesia. Once, however, when Bryan came in for his treatment, he had a very bad cold. The infection made giving him anesthesia too risky. But skipping the treatment would also be very risky.
So the doctor sat Bryan down and explained to him what had to be done. He said: “Bryan, I have to give you this treatment. There is no way we can postpone it. But because you have a bad cold, I cannot take away your pain by giving you an anesthetic. So this is what I am going to do. I am going to give you the medicine, and then I am going to hold you very, very tightly in my arms. I love you very much, and so I will hold you close when the pain comes.”
And that is what he did. The doctor watched the monitor carefully. Whenever the moments of greatest pain were about to come, he would hold Bryan tightly in his arms and somehow, they both got through it.
After the treatment, Bryan insisted on giving the doctor a present in order to express his gratitude. He gave him a pencil, his favorite pencil. The doctor did not really need the pencil, but in order to make Bryan happy, he accepted it.
When he got home that night, he shared the story of Bryan’s treatment with his family and showed them the pencil. His oldest child took the pencil, went to the breakfront, and said: “Dad, take out all the glass and silver here, and put this pencil in their place. This is what we should show everybody.” And he put Bryan’s gift into the breakfront.
The family realized that the boy was right and they kept that pencil on display, right next to the Kiddush cups, menorahs and the tzedaka boxes from then on.
Perhaps we should create a new set of blessings in order to make us more conscious of the holy moments that we mistakenly think of as secular. What if there was a bracha for voting? There should be, for it is a holy moment, not to be taken for granted. What if there was a bracha for entering the office and starting work each day? There should be for that would make us realize that the office can be a holy place? What if accountants and lawyers began their day with a bracha? There might be less business scandals if they did. What if we had blessings for nurses and doctors to say so that they might always realize that what they do is holy work? What if we all kept something like that pencil that this doctor kept in his breakfront, right next to the Kiddush cups and the menorahs, to remind us that Gd is with us in our offices as well as in shule?
There’s a famous story of a Chassidic Rebbe who, like most Rebbes, inherited his position from his father. But unlike his father, he would go out constantly to visit his people and to give them counsel and support:
The Chassidim were kind of embarrassed that the Rebbe came to them so often, and so they said to him, timidly and politely: “Why don’t you stay home, as your father did, and we will come to you when we have problems for which we need your help.”
The Rebbe said, “Thank you, but no thank you; I would rather go to you.” And then he explained why. He said that one night he had a dream and in his dream he saw his father now in heaven. His father was wearing a magnificent gown, and a royal crown, studded with jewels. The gown and the crown were made up of the mitzvot that he had done while on earth. But then he noticed that his father was barefoot. He asked his father: “Why are you barefoot?” And his father said: “My gown and my crown are made up of the good deeds that I did while I was on earth. But I waited for people to come to me for help instead of going to them. Therefore, I have no good deeds that were done with my feet. This is why I am now barefoot.”
The Rebbe explained to his Chasidim that this is why he wants to go to them instead of waiting for them to come to him.
The point of this story is that you can bring holiness to this world not just with your prayers, not just by studying Torah, not just with your checkbook...you can do it with your feet as well, if you use them to go to people when they need your help.
The point of today’s Torah reading with its emphasis on the mundane details of life—after the peak experiences of the 10 plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the receiving of the 10 Commandments at Sinai—is that we can achieve holiness in every aspect of our lives: by the way we do business, by the way we handle the claims of our employees, by the way we buy and sell and hire and fire. The point of the story of the doctor who got a pencil to put in his breakfront is that we can be holy by the way we treat others when they’re in pain. And the point of the Chassidic story is that every part of us can be holy, our bodies as well as our minds, our souls and our hearts—if we use them to do good.
In today’s parsha (Ex. 22:30), the people of Israel are told: Anshey kodesh t’hiyun li, “You shall be holy people unto Me.” Why do we need the extra word: anshey, “people”? Would it not be enough to say: kodesh t’hiyun li, “Be holy unto Me?” Answers the Kotske Rebbe: “Anshey kodesh t’hiyun li means: ‘Be a holy mentch, human being, to Me. Angels I have enough without you.’”
What it all adds up to is that we can connect with Gd and bring holiness into this world just by the way we eat and drink, by the way we work and play, by the way we hire and fire, by the way we buy and sell, by the way we use our hands and feet, as well as by the way we pray and study Torah. We connect to Gd by how we live, love and help each other. Every day we should have special holy moments where, after doing something, we look up and feel our hearts and souls soaring with Gd—every day! This is what it means to be holy. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis