Shemini: Ordinary Miracles

These concepts are reflected in this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Shemini. Shemini means “the eighth.” It refers to the first of Nissan, the day on which the Sanctuary was established. It is called “the eighth day” because it was preceded by seven days of dedication, during which Moshe erected and took down the Sanctuary each day, and taught Aharon and his sons the order of sacrificial worship…The Torah relates (Leviticus 10:1-2) that they brought an unauthorized incense offering and as a result, “Fire came forth from G-d and consumed them.”

Many explanations are offered as to why the brothers were punished by death. From a mystical perspective, it is said (Or HaChayim, commenting on Leviticus 16:1) that they died because their souls soared to such heights that they could no longer remain in their bodies. Nevertheless, their conduct is judged unfavorably because their spiritual quest ran contrary to G-d’s intent in creation: the establishment of a dwelling for Himself amidst the day-to-day realities of our existence. (See Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Bechukosai) Their deaths show that our spiritual quest should not be directed towards the attainment of lofty rapture, but instead should remain firmly grounded in our actual lives.

This theme is also reflected in the conclusion of the Torah reading, which focuses on kosher food. For the establishment of a dietary code indicates that Judaism’s conception of Divine service involves living within the world.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Transcendence and Immanence”
In the Garden of Torah”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 973ff;
Vol. XVII, p. 92ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 475ff
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemini
Chabad.org

All that walk on four… (11:21)

When Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch was a child of seven, he asked his father: Why does man walk upright, while animals walk on all fours? Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied: “This is a kindness from G-d to man: although man treads upon the material earth, he sees the sublime heaven. Not so those that crawl on four, who see only the mundane.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Rebbe’s New Clothes”
Once Upon a Chasid
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemini
Chabad.org

I suppose I’m being unfair when I accuse Christianity of focusing on the Heavenly at the expense of the here-and-now. After all, Christians perform many wonderful services of charity and kindness to those around them and to those in far-flung corners of the world. But as I recall my past when I used to sit in a pew in a church sanctuary on Sunday morning, it seems as if a great deal of time was spent touting the advantages of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and that it’s all about “me and Jesus.” How many prayers have I heard offered up to the ceiling of the Sunday school classroom, asking for “a closer walk with thee” and thanking Jesus for the personal gift of grace and salvation?

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but now that our “ticket to Heaven” has been “punched,” so to speak, what are we supposed to do with the rest of our lives?

The commentaries I quoted from above may seem alien to most of you, but they do aptly illustrate the necessity of balancing the secular with the Divine. So many of the commandments given to the Israelites at Sinai were related to the world in which we live. There are commandments about food, commandments about clothing, commandments about marriage, commandments about farming, commandments about helping your neighbor, even if you don’t like him very much, commandments about…well, you get the idea.

Sure, there are also a lot of commandments about God, services of holiness, and acts of the Spirit, but there is an inseperable link between loving God and loving human beings (See Matthew 22:36-40). As far as I can tell, most or all of the commandments we see in the Torah that have to do with visiting the sick and feeding the hungry apply just as much to the Christian as they do to the Jew. That’s what I see in the Master’s teachings, anyway.

But many Christians still have this funny idea that we are only really serving God if we have some sort of formal “ministry” within the church, even as a lay teacher. Yet we see countless examples in the Bible of ordinary people who were devoted to God and who lived day-to-day lives that included acts of kindness and compassion to whomever they encountered who needed it.

Giving a jump start to the car of a guy who’s late for a job interview is just as holy as helping to build a new church on a mission trip to a foreign country. Where did we get the idea that we had to do something unusual and extraordinary; something way outside the normal boundries of our lives, in order to serve God and to obey the teachings of Jesus? As an “ordinary” person, you may be capable of committing more acts of holiness than even the greatest televangelist or Pastor of a “megachurch” you see on TV ( I suppose I’m employing more than a little tongue-in-cheek here).

And perhaps you are capable of even much greater miracles than these.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do… –John 14:12 (ESV)

Miracles, by the way, don’t always have to be violations of the laws of physics. Sometimes, offering a momentary smile to a person who looks sad, or helping a lost person find the right address can be a miracle as great as moving a mountain.

Reading the Bible, praying, meditating on the acts of God, and worshiping with your fellows are all absolutely necessary acts of holiness and they bring much joy to God and to your own heart. But they are no more or less vital than helping change a flat tire for someone, donating a can of soup to your local food bank, or spending time with a neighbor who is in the hospital after surgery.

Today (as I write this), I’m going to take my son to work, deliver a Bible and some other books to a Chaplin who is going to deliver them to a sick and elderly Jewish gentleman who has just discovered the Messiah in Yeshua, and spend some time over coffee studying the Word of God with a friend. I don’t say these things because I think it makes me a better or special person. I say them because I’m an ordinary person doing ordinary things. But the ordinary and the holy are all intermixed in everything we do. We have our feet on the ground, but our eyes turned to Heaven.

And of all the ordinary things you and I are going to do today, who knows which one of them is a miracle?

Whatever we “offer” to God and to human beings, let it be who we are and not some “strange fire” we think we need to burn with in our hearts. God made us perfect as the people we are meant to be.

Good Shabbos.

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4 thoughts on “Shemini: Ordinary Miracles”

  1. I agree it risks splitting our lives in two, increasing a dangerous dichotomy between ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ activities.
    I best restore my sense of God’s Presence throughout my life on hiking trails (rather than churches), and try hard to carry that with me after the hike.
    I also think the traditional stage/audience format of most Christian Sunday services encourages a dangerous passivity. I hope I am not being judgemental, just relating my personal experience (so far).
    Once again, thank you James for a thought provoking blog entry!

  2. It’s funny you should say all that, Joe. I was having coffee with a friend after work yesterday (my current answer to a “faith community” is to meet once a week with one or two guys who, like me, feel that attending a church doesn’t quite “fit the bill”) and we were talking about the pitfalls of the traditional church. His father was a Pastor so he was raised in the church, but he said he doesn’t feel he has progressed as far spiritually as our other partner (who couldn’t make it last night) or me.

    That kind of surprised me, since there’s just a ton I don’t know and I came in rather “late in the game,” but he told me that some people can be very advanced in church and religion but not necessarily so spiritually.

    I wrote this blog post yesterday, well before our meeting, so I didn’t have that conversation in mind when I wrote this particular commentary. I don’t think a formal religious community is necessarily a bad thing, but you’re right, there are so many people sitting in pews every Sunday, listening to canned sermons and going to Sunday school and listening to canned lessons, that they aren’t really participating in their faith, their spiritual identity as it exists in the here and now, or with God, as least beyond a minimal point.

    Something’s got to shake up the system, otherwise will Jesus indeed find faith upon his return? (Luke 18:8)

  3. “But many Christians still have this funny idea that we are only really serving God if we have some sort of formal “ministry” within the church, even as a lay teacher. ”

    James, that’s a GREAT point! In Judaism that’s not the case, at least not for the most part. We are to serve G-d by doing mitzvot whenever we find the opportunity. That’s not to say that there are not something that could be labeled as a dedicated “ministry” in Judaisms (a burial society comes to mind), but an office of formal “ministry” as we know it seems to be a wholly Evangelical Christian construct.

  4. Thanks, Gene. That’s exactly my point. Judaism encourages all Jews to serve God by performing the mitzvot. Although the concept of doing “good deeds” exists in Christianity, it doesn’t seem to have the same universal application across all Christians as the mitzvot has across all Jews. And yet, Jesus (Yeshua) taught a very Jewish model relative to the mitzvot to his disciples which, in my opinion, should be transmitted to the Gentile disciples. This doesn’t obligate the non-Jewish disciples to the same Torah as the Jews, but those aspects that do apply, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and so forth, should be seen as applying to everyone across the board, not just to “special ministries in the church.”

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