Find the miracle within the ordinary

Cantor Joshua Finkel is the spiritual leader of  Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. 

BY CANTOR JOSHUA FINKEL

This week’s double portion, Matot-Masei, includes a number of dramatic and memorable moments from the Torah: The Israelites go to war with Midian; the daughters of Tzelafechad finally receive their inheritance after making a bold legal and moral argument against prior laws and customs that excluded them; and cities of refuge are established for perpetrators of manslaughter. 

These are all very notable and much remarked upon moments in the narrative of the Torah and our people as they prepare to pass into their new land.

 But not everything in Matot-Masei is so juicy. It also includes a 50-verse repetition of place names from our journey through the wilderness in a passage that I find quite notable, as it is widely regarded as the most extraneous and boring passage of Torah. I assure you that I am not alone in this observation. For instance, Rabbi Abraham Saba of the 15th century relates in his “Tzror Hamor” that “the reporting of these marches seems extraneous. … There is nothing in the Torah that seems as superfluous as [the recording of] these marches.”

 Naturally, this begs the question of why something so redundant and dry made the cut in our holy book.

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 Maimonides argues in his “Guide to the Perplexed” that it’s a proof-text against those who might doubt the miraculous nature of the Exodus:

 “People would think that [the Israelites] sojourned in a desert that was near to cultivated land and in which people live … or that it consisted of places in which it was possible to till and to reap or to feed on plants that were to be found there, or that there were wells of water in those places.” 

So Maimonides is arguing that the list is meant to underscore the impossibility of the Exodus without manna and without God’s direct involvement in the Exodus through miracles such as the water from the rock at Rephidim.

The great commentator Rashi from the 11th century argues that the text underscores God’s kindness, because even though God decreed that the people wander through the desert for 40 years, the list reveals that we didn’t actually spend very much of that time marching: 14 of the marches took place in the first year, eight took place after Aaron’s death in the 40th year, so over 38 middle years of our time in the wilderness, the people marched a total of only 20 times.

One of my favorite modern sermonizers, Rabbi Shai Held, makes a different interpretation. He argues of this section: “The text serves to remind us that even seemingly inconsequential stops on our journey can be powerful opportunities for serving God.”

 As inheritors of the Torah, we are often much occupied with separation between the sacred and the profane. But I would argue that the English word “profane” invokes a fundamentally non-Jewish concept. When we make Havdallah at the end of Shabbat and delineate between kodesh and chol, what we are really doing is separating the holy from the ordinary. The opposite of holiness and sacredness in Judaism is not really profanity but ordinariness. 

And our tradition reminds us again and again that ordinariness does not exist outside ourselves but is really a state of mind, a heuristic mode of thinking, and ultimately a lack of awareness that is curable through seeking wonder. 

Heschel reminds us that the light in the trees on a spring day is a miracle. We remind ourselves through the practice of a sabbath and with b’rachot that there is no such thing as ordinary, that eating, drinking, washing our hands, using the restroom, lighting candles on Shabbat, smelling flowers and even just seeing the differences in one another is an opportunity to experience anew that each moment is an ongoing act of creation. 

And this week’s reading reminds us that even the most miraculous can feel quite ordinary, and even be made to feel boring and extraneous when we forget the miracles and the manna and sustenance that surrounds us at all times, even the darkest ones.

I would argue that the opposite of morality is not evil, but is in fact exhaustion, the exhaustion of goodwill, of empathy, of agency. 

In times of moral crisis and the erosion of our better qualities, seeing the miraculousness of our daily lives is not a luxury but a fundamental necessity and, in these times, often a radical act of love and self-care. Like our ancestors, to survive the march of 40 years we must stop on the way for manna.

I encourage you to take a moment to stop and slow down. Feel the breeze on your skin, see the light filter through the trees. Smell and taste the newness of this moment, maybe even say a bracha. The world is still unfolding. Our Torah gives us a road map of how it unfolds, of our agency in its unfolding, and of how to find manna. Each moment is, after all, a powerful opportunity to serve God — no matter how seemingly ordinary or even profane.

Cantor Joshua Finkel serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly D’var Torah for the JewishLight.

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