How can we make our religious experience sustainable? In other words, how do we maintain a sense of connection with HaShem even when we are not doing a mitzvah? Often, our experience of Judaism can feel reserved. Whether it is reserved for the Shabbat table, for holidays, for the synagogue, or for prayer. Sometimes, it simply does not seem to move past those devoted spaces and times. But I find that if we do not have a way of bridging those explicit moments of Avodat HaShem—service of God—with those moments that feel mundane, we lose out on the goal of religious life: to infuse our entire lives with awareness, intentionality, and holiness. But what do we do on the day to day? What do we do at work or in a math class? Is there space for sacredness there too?
In the first verse of this week’s parsha Chayei Sarah, we learn about the lifespan of Sarah.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה׃
“And it was that Sarah’s lifetime came to be: one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years were the years of Sarah’s lifetime” (Gen. 23:1).
So why is this description so wordy? There is a redundant use of the term “years” and the word “life.” The Torah seems to have extra words.
The rabbis, clearly perplexed by this pasuk, offer the midrash that states the following: The reason the word shana is written in every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number. At the age of one hundred, she was as a woman of twenty in regards to sin, as she was sinless. And when she was twenty, she was as beautiful as when she was seven (Gen. Rabbah 58:1).
The rabbis here know two aspects of Sarah’s persona. One, she has no sins. Two, she’s beautiful. But the Noam Elimelech offers a new interpretation on this ancient midrash. Rather than being a description, he offers that it is a prescription. He suggests there are two levels in which a person can create sanctity in their lives. One is to be like Sarah by being careful to avoid sin and do the commandments. But the second level the Noam Elimelech suggests is that of elevating the sanctity that exists in all things outside the commandments.
We, like Sarah, elevate the beauty in all things. Rather than seeing beauty as a description of Sarah’s appearance, beauty is how Sarah acted in all the so called mundane aspects of her life. Sarah made the act of simply living into something holy.
At every turn, we have the opportunity to find the sacred in all that we do. When we eat, when we get dressed, when we read about a new and profound idea, we can find holiness. We do not have to reserve sacredness for mitzvot. Rather, the Noam Elimelech offers that it is a requirement of life to find the sacred beauty and holiness in all things throughout our whole lifetime.
By doing this, we can bridge the gap between one Shabbat in the next, between one holiday and the next, between one mitzvah and the next, because every moment and everything can and must be made holy.
This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.