Wednesday, July 23, 2014 Tammuz 25, 5774

Even Everyday Moments Have Special Meaning

January 5, 2012 By:
Rabbi Adam Zeff
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VAYEHI, Genesis 47:28-50:26

In this week's Torah reading, we reach the end of the book of Genesis, the book of the Bible that more than any other is filled with absorbing stories that we treasure, from the seven days of creation to Noah's ark, from Abraham and Isaac's encounter with the ram at the top of Mt. Moriah to Jacob wrestling with the angel as he returns to the land of his birth.

These dramatic stories have for centuries fired our imaginations and they have prompted the many questions and possible answers that over the centuries have helped to weave the fabric of Jewish tradition.

But as we bring the book of Genesis to a close, it is worthwhile to stop to consider how little of "ordinary" life is narrated in it. We look to the Torah as a guide for our own lives, yet few of our lives are as full of the dramatic moments the biblical stories describe in such detail.

While we may find narrative highlights in our own stories -- the birth of a child, a wedding, an anniversary, a special birthday or other significant moments in the cycles of our lives -- most of our daily existence is taken up with the far more prosaic concerns of eating, sleeping, caretaking and earning a living.

How, then, can we find in the dramatic biblical stories a model for our ordinary lives?

One hint can be found in the traditional practice of midrash -- the method of interpreting the text of the Torah that was developed and used by the ancient rabbis who lived 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. The ancient rabbis taught that every word of the Bible, no matter how insignificant it may seem, holds the potential to unlock the meaning of the text.

Even words like "the" or "et," a Hebrew particle that has no specific English translation, were used by the rabbis to explain what the Bible might be teaching us, its message for their times and for our own.

One way we might use the biblical stories as models for our own lives is by looking at them the way the ancient rabbis looked at the text of the Torah.

Of course, we should pay close attention to the dramatic high points of our lives, just as the rabbis lavished attention on the high points in the text of Genesis that I mentioned above.

But, like the rabbis, we should give no less attention to the ordinary moments of our lives, to those prosaic times that are not enshrined in photo albums or retold at family gatherings.

As the rabbis used the midrashic method to open up the meaning of seemingly insignificant words in sacred texts, we can parallel that method by concentrating our attention on the seemingly insignificant everyday moments that, after all, make up the bulk of our lifetimes.

Each moment of our lives, like each word of the Torah, holds the potential for meaning. But just as the rabbis must work hard to unleash the potential of each of those little words, so, too, must we work hard to unleash the potential of each little ordinary moment.

A touch, a word, a glance, a smile -- each of these tiny pieces of the mosaic of our lived experience can reveal meaning and infuse our lives with holiness -- if, and only if, we take the time to notice them, to feel their significance and to connect them to the story of our lives, stories as sacred as those of our ancestors, even in their most ordinary moments.

Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: rabbi@germantownjewishcentre.org.

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