Making The Everyday Holy: Beha’alotecha
June 1, 2018
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Many years ago, a college friend suggested that we go to Colorado for a week of hiking and camping. Somehow, the trip never materialized, but the thought remained in my mind for all these years. Life kept pushing the idea further and further back, and then it just faded. Until recently, that is.
You see, my son now lives in Colorado, and last weekend I went out there for a few days. It wasn’t the first visit, but this time I got to fulfill at least part of the old dream. We didn’t go camping, but we did go hiking. Colorado is full of amazing roads and nature trails, and beautiful vistas open before you at every moment and every turn.
I posted some of the pictures I took on Facebook, even as I realized that no photograph can do justice to the majesty and grandeur of the scenery. One of the responses I got was, “I think you could get used to this!” My instinct was to reply, “I hope not!” But of course my friend had meant her words figuratively, not literally.
The phrase “to get used to something” has two meanings. The figurative meaning is that something doesn’t require much work, there’s nothing unpleasant or difficult involved. It’s easy to become part of the experience. The other, more literal meaning, is to no longer see something as unusual or surprising. The special becomes ordinary.
How could anyone, I thought, get used to the Rocky Mountains? The lakes and rivers, the valleys and rock formations? How could all that become ordinary?
However, I suppose it is possible that for someone who’s lived in Colorado long enough, even the Rockies could fade into the background.
Our senses need constant refreshment; we need persistent stimulation, or else we dobecome used to just about anything. And when we get used to things, to people, to nature, to life, we start taking them for granted, and at that point, unless we are careful, they can lose all meaning.
We are blessed today with just about everything we need. A few commands entered into our laptops or smartphones guarantee that whatever our hearts desire will arrive at our doorstep within a day or two, if not sooner.
It’s easy to get used to such comfort and convenience.
It’s easy to believe we have it coming to us, that we deserve it, that anything can be ours just because we want it.
The danger in this kind of thinking, however, is that sometimes—just sometimes—it just so happens that we can’t have what we want. Childlike then, we lapse into frustration and anger. We lash out. We blame others for what we cannot have, and sometimes our rage can even turn into hatred, and then to violence. Sadly, in our day, in our country, we see this happening more and more.
This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha(“Kindling the Lights,” Numbers 8:1—12:16), teaches us how to avoid this dangerous regression. Its theme is elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary, the sacred. The portion begins by stating the rules the priest has to follow as he kindles the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched gold candelabra that once stood at the opening of the Tent of Meeting and, later, at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah’s instructions then move on to the ritual of elevating the Levites, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, to the exalted position of maintaining and leading the sacred service at the Temple. Finally, Beha’alotechatalks about elevating Time itself, taking the everyday, the most ordinary, the element of life we pay the least attention to—unless we’re in a hurry, or when we realize how precious little of it we still have left—and making it holy.
In the story of the manna,Beha’alotechaaddresses the danger of taking things for granted. As you might remember, manna was that sweet delicacy that appeared every morning, without fail, like dew, and fed the people throughout their wanderings in the Sinai Wilderness. It required no work, no hunting, no cultivation. All you had to do was to go out and gather as much as you needed. No more and no less. But, as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, and soon enough the Israelites get used to it and take to complaining. Forgetting the misery, the slavery, even the genocide they had endured in Egypt, they begin to cry out for—to lust for—the fleshpots of Egypt, the meat, the fish, the fresh fruit and vegetables that grew in abundance by the Nile River.
It’s easy to get used to something if it comes to you regularly, without fail. It’s easy to take things for granted, even people, family, and love. It’s easy to forget how we got to this point; easy to forget the sacrifices that were made by those who came before us, by those who still stand guard. It’s easy to ignore the plight of those who endure back-breaking work for little or no pay just to make sure we have everything we want, any time we want it.
The lesson that Beha’alotechateaches us is not to get too used to the blessings that fill our life. Sometimes we needto make a special effort to appreciate what we have. Pinch yourself to make sure the dream does not fade away. Anything that comes easily can also disappear just as easily. Kindling the menorahlights may sound simple enough, but it had to be done every day, with special care and attention given to the tiniest details. The High Priest, whose duty this was, had to take an act we rarely think twice about, and make it holy. Special praise is given to Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first High Priest, for keeping his hand steady as he fills the menorah’sreceptacles with pure olive oil, never spilling or wasting a drop of the precious liquid.
Making little deeds mean more than they seem to, takes purpose and dedication, even love.
The Levites weren’t born special—no different from you and me. But the exalted position to which they were called came with extra responsibilities. Becoming a sacred servant to God and to people takes study, practice and years of preparation. Holiness is neither simple nor easy. Slipping up can have serious consequences.
And as for the rest of us, the so-called ordinary people, the rest of the Israelites, whose roles were mundane, routine, even monotonous, we too were given a task, a special, sacred task: We are called upon to sanctify time. Time—a share of Eternity—is quite possibly the most wonderful blessing granted us by God, yet also the one we take most for granted. There are special moments that stay in our minds and hearts forever—like when our children are born, or when they speak their first word or take their first step, or when they graduate high school and leave home for the first time. However, being a holy people means that we must make everymoment of our life special. Make it sacred. Make it count.
The time we spend on this earth; the time we spend with one another; the time we see a flower blossom or a mountain rise before our eyes—these are special times. Making Time sacred means filling every moment with purpose and meaning. The gift of Time is something you can’t get used to, mustn’t get used to. It is sacred.
May beauty and love never become so ordinary that we get used to them. Like Aaron, may we kindle lights for others. Like the Levites, may the labor of our hands always be filled with faith and purpose. Like the Israelites in the Wilderness, may we all learn to see the extraordinary, the sacred, at every moment, at every turn, and with each breath we take.
© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman