Making The Ordinary Sacred

With the completion of the cycle of holidays that ushered in the new Jewish calendar year, one could almost hear the audible sigh of relief from all quarters of the Jewish community. No more sick days that need to be depleted, no more classes that need to be missed, no more relentless assault of unending, overwhelming holiday meals…we’ve been ready for this for a long time, and it feels awfully good to have reached the holiday-less month of Heshvan.

It should come as no surprise that most rabbis (being human, after all) feel this way too. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, this has been, indeed, a pressured and difficult time of year. We are, by and large, no less happy to have the holidays in our rear view mirror than the average layperson.

But … you knew I was going to say “but,” didn’t you? But -– I worry about what happens to us when the holidays are over, and life is restored to “normal” routines and patterns. What does “normal” mean when it is used with regard to religious and spiritual life?

For people who attend synagogue regularly, normal can mean a service without any of the holiday add-ons that elongate it. I often refer to the first Shabbat after the holidays as “plain vanilla.” There’s only one Torah to be read from, no Hallel, no parades with the Torah, no Kohelet to be read … Going back to time-honored, familiar, and unadorned but cherished patterns of Jewish life feels like becoming reacquainted with an old friend, just like reencountering the challenging chapters of Genesis does.

But in matters related to the religious life words like“normal” and “routine” bring with them mixed blessings. As the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so meaningfully, they can become the greatest enemies of religiously inspired spirituality and meaning. Routine desensitizes us to what is going on around us. Predictability allows us to know and depend on what is likely to happen, but it also lulls us into a state of being that makes it that much harder to harness the sense of wonder that informs the life of the spiritually sensitive person.

And so it is that, at precisely at this time of year, we need to reclaim the wisdom of Rabbi Meir’s ancient teaching: a Jew is required to recite one hundred blessings each and every day,

Even on plain, “vanilla” days– no, especially on those days– reciting one hundred blessings forces us to come out of the stupor those predictable routines can generate. They oblige us to recognize the one, great fundamental truth of our lives: nothing is routine. That’s right– nothing is routine, and nothing should be taken for granted.

Blessings exist to aid us in recognizing and acknowledging the sacred dimension that is inherent in even the most ordinary functions or routine. When we recite a bracha, we elevate the ordinary to another, higher dimension. We make the ordinary holy. This is our challenge as Jews each and every day, to increase the domain of the holy, and decrease the domain of the ordinary. That is what it means to be a partner with God in the work of creation.

When we recite a blessing before eating different kinds of food, we transform one of the most basic human drives into a sacred act. When we recite a blessing even after using the bathroom, we transform the most basic and fundamental function of the human body into a sacred miracle.

There are, of course, countless examples of this, but the fundamental point applies across the board. Reciting one hundred blessings a day, with the proper focus, virtually insures that the ordinary will not cause us to lose our capacity to appreciate the miraculous dimension of human existence.

This is not an easy challenge. True spirituality requires discipline and hard work, especially when one lives in a world that is as profane as ours.

Blessings themselves can become rote and empty vehicles, devoid of spiritual content. But there is no denying their importance as we enter this post-holiday season. ever-sensitive to the sacred dimension of human existence is a year-round agenda for the truly observant Jew. It’s not all about ritual; it’s about wonder informing the ritual and making it more meaningful.

May we all be graced with an enduring sense of wonder in this new year!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.