The Magnificence in the Mundane

With the approach of spring, the synagogue Torah-reading segued from accounts of the seminal events of Jewish peoplehood, the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai – to a series of social laws, like oxen goring one another and penalties for thieves. And then, another transition, to the painstaking details of constructing the Tabernacle and its vessels, and the laws of sacrifices.

The two holidays of the season, Purim and Passover, although mere weeks apart, also differ markedly in tone. The staple of our recently celebrated Passover Seders (besides, of course, the matzo and wine) was the grand narrative of the exodus from Egypt; the commemoration was all miracle and majesty. How different from the Purim that preceded it, where so hidden was G-d’s hand that there is no overt mention of Him in the Book of Esther. In fact, the narrative of the deliverance of ancient Persian Jewry can easily (if wrongly) be read entirely as a sort of Shakespearean comedy, with fortuitous coincidences taking the place of divine intervention.

A lesson of the odd juxtapositions may be that holiness permeates not only the miraculous but the mundane. G-d, indeed, is “in the details.”

The details of the Torah’s laws and the details of history. The payment due the owner of a damaged ox no less than keeping the Sabbath day; the subtle miracle of Purim, no less than the splitting of the Red Sea.

In fact, Judaism teaches that G-d inheres even in the minutiae of daily life. Ours is a religion where every area and moment of human endeavor is sublimated by the law – or, better “the proper way,” a more precise translation of the word “halacha.”

From the first words we speak upon arising in the morning (the “Modeh Ani” declaration of gratitude for another day of life) until the final ones before retiring (the “Hamapil” prayer that we be “laid to sleep in peace and be raised up in peace”); from what we wear to what we eat; from how we speak to how we act toward others; an observant Jew’s every utterance and action is governed by the Torah’s directives. Nothing is mundane.

And more: Not only are our words and actions to reflect G-d’s immanence, so are our mindsets. When we ponder the world, we must try to discern G-d’s hand, which is ubiquitous if not always obvious. As a keen rabbi once put it: “Seas split every day, but only sensitive eyes notice.” That is true about history – the Jewish people’s perseverance a case in point – but also with regard to our immediate physical surroundings, the constant miracles so easily taken for granted.

Perhaps that is why the same season of the year that presents such contrasts in both its Torah-portions and its holidays, is also the time for a special blessing that can be made no other time of year.

It comes from a category of blessings pronounced upon witnessing certain natural phenomena (like a rainbow, or thunder and lightning), and is made only once each year, in the early spring, upon seeing two or more fruit-bearing trees in bloom.

“Blessed are You, G-d, King of the universe,” it begins, as all such blessings do, “Who has omitted nothing from His universe, and created within it lovely creatures and lovely trees, to bring pleasure to human beings.”

The springtime tree-blessing, fittingly made as we experience a contrast in climate, winter’s darkness and cold giving way to spring’s light and life, helps us focus on what we might all too easily overlook, lost as we all too often become, in “more important” concerns.

It makes us stop and look at something commonplace – not even the forest, just the trees – and see within the beauty of their blossoms a loving gift from G-d.

It compels us, faced with the mundane, to perceive the magnificent.

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