The Myth of Mundanity

An abrupt shift takes place in all the world’s synagogues around this time of year.

Over the previous 17 weeks, since the public reading of the Torah was begun anew after the holiday of Sukkot, the readings were narrative in nature, beginning with the world’s creation, continuing with elements of the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, then the account of Joseph’s life, the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai.

Beginning with the portion called Mishpatim, though, the Torah’s focus is largely on technicalities of civil and ritual laws. Then, in subsequent weeks, laws pertaining to the minutiae of the Tabernacle’s construction, its many vessels and the special garments worn by Cohanim during sacrificial services will be read. The sudden transition from miraculous to mundane is striking.

Every word of the Torah, though, is as important as every other; a missing letter, whether in the account of the revelation at Sinai or in the rules governing property damage, renders a Torah scroll invalid.

Likewise, every seemingly pedestrian law or occurrence in the Torah is ultimately as imbued with holiness as the most astounding miracle recounted. The dimensions of the Tabernacle’s outer perimeter and the description of the manna that fell from heaven are, in the end, of equal import.

A similar false dichotomy inhabits our individual lives. We tend to readily perceive the divine in certain places, circumstances and events – in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, after an escape from danger, at the birth of a child. The challenge lies in recognizing that every place in which we find ourselves is special; every situation we face, divinely ordained; every moment, in its own way, a miracle.

I’m no fan of the contemporary “wonder-stories” so many find inspiring. Even the modern-day miracle-accounts that don’t turn out to have been embellished (or fabricated entirely) leave me unmoved. In fact my favorite story, told to me by one of my daughters (who heard it from a friend) concerns a woman who had to catch a plane to make it to an interview for a job in another city. She left plenty of time to get to the airport and had her boarding pass, but found herself stuck in traffic as the departure time approached.

Arriving in barely enough time to park her car, she ran to the terminal, found the gate and then watched in dismay as the plane pushed away from its dock just as she arrived.

After discovering that there were no other flights that would get her to her interview on time, she headed home. Several hours later, the plane on which she was to have flown began its descent to its destination, the woman’s reserved seat empty…

The plane touched down, safely and on time. The passengers disembarked.

End of story.

Moral: The woman never came to know why she lost her chance at the job. Nobody did. But, all the same, there was a reason.

The Torah’s segue from miraculous narratives to quotidian concerns takes public place during the weeks leading to the holiday of Purim. The Talmud says that the Jews’ acceptance and embrace of the Torah at Sinai included an element of coercion and thus lacked something that was only supplied centuries later, at the time of the events recounted in the Book of Esther. The “coercion” may well include the overwhelming nature of the encounter itself. How could anyone present at Sinai possibly have resisted accepting the Torah? G-d revealed Himself then like at no other time in history. In the time of Esther, by contrast, there was no overt manifestation at all of divine intervention (nor is there any mention of G-d in the Book of Esther).

To see G-d where He is most patently evident is one thing. To discern His presence in what seems mundane is entirely another. And the latter, more meaningful, perception is what the Jews managed to attain in the time of Esther. They turned in supplication to Him in their time of crisis and, after their salvation, they recognized that the turn of events, so easily dismissible as “mere chance,” had been divinely guided throughout. And they established the holiday of Purim to eternalize that recognition.

“Purim” the word, of course, means “lots,” referring to the agents of chance Haman employed to choose a date for the destruction of the Jewish community. Purim the holiday celebrates the fact that chance, as it is usually understood, is in fact an illusion, that what seems to be randomness is but a subtle manifestation of divine purpose – that everything in our history and in our lives is, in the end, guided by an unseen but all-encompassing hand.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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5 Responses

  1. Avigail Melzer says:

    “there was a reason. ”
    Of course! Maybe, that very day someone else who was interviewed for the job, but would have been turned down in favor of the woman who missed her flight, was taken on – and, who knows, perhaps thereby saved her family from financial disaster? It’s very easy to see how all the various flukes of hashgacha pratis that are so beneficial to us can either be detrimental or simply have no meaning or significance to the other protagonists in the event.

  2. Martin says:

    As we say every Motzei Shabbos in Havdalah…”Hamavdil bein Kodesh l’Chol…”
    The Holy cannot be fully appreciated if not in relation to the mundane, and vice versa. Both are necessary. The mussar lesson here is that we must realize that we would be unable to reach spiritual “highs” without also experiencing spiritual “lows” and we must learn to thank HaShem for both.

  3. another Nathan says:

    The Seforno, in his commentary to Tazriah, suggests that Hashgacha Pratis is reserved only for Tzadikim. In such a paradigm, it means the woman in the story missed her flight because of… bad traffic.
    Hashgacha Pratis is often understood in the sense of a mechanical, deterministic universe. God thus becomes reduced to its operator/ engineer.

    [YA – 1) The Seforno may very well mean that hashgacha peratis that will allow for semi-miraculous manifestations like nega’im as a consequence of aveirah. He does not necessarily mean that HKBH micro-managing our lives in an unobtrusive way is reserved only for tzadikim. 2) Please show who “often” understands a deterministic universe as hashgacha peratis. Kelalis, perhaps. But I, for one, have no recollection of ever seeing the term used the way you are using it.]

  4. another Nathan says:

    1) Are you saying that indeed, HKBH is micro-managing our lives in an unobtrusive way? If that is so, I will revise my position from “I don’t understand Hashgacha Pratis,” to now saying “I REALLY DON’T understand Hashgacha Pratis”
    2) It’s not something I read, but how Hashgacha Pratis seems to be understood when used in discussions.

  5. Tzivia says:

    Where in Tazria (the Sforno)? Thanks.

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