One of the things I love most about Judaism is the awareness and intention it can bring to even the most mundane and everyday of tasks. Growing up, “religion” was something that was always separate from everyday life. We went to church on certain days and not others. We prayed only on certain days or at certain times. Religion was an obligation to be taken care of and THEN you lived your life and in church it seemed like everyday life was inherently unholy and that holiness was something separate that you only touched briefly when you were in church unless you were part of the clergy. It wasn’t for just any layperson or any day and it certainly wasn’t found in the “worldly” world around us.
This never quite fit with my own personal experience of the world, even as a child.
I felt more connected with whatever that “more is out there” was when I was out in the world, particularly the natural world, than I ever did in the stuffy air behind stained glass windows. To me, it seemed like the dark wood pews, frowning statues of saints, and stained glass more seemed to keep what I felt was something more out. I know understand that Hashem was even there because there is no place He isn’t, but as a child it seemed to me that church was the last place I could find that connection.
Judaism is so different when it comes to everyday life and religion’s place in it.
An observant Jew’s day is filled with prayer and almost every aspect of the day is given greater intention, from what we wear, to how we speak, to what and how we eat. I open my eyelids and, as tired as I was having to wake up extra early for work at 4am, I utter the first prayer of the day, Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for giving my soul back to me and giving me another day here in this life. Blessings and prayers are on my lips throughout my day and each day involves some kind of study of Torah. My faith isn’t something confined to certain days or times, but is integrated into every waking moment. Even working on a firewall at work can have a greater purpose and intention and should. We’re asked to elevate the mundane everyday into something greater, not try to escape it.
Perhaps the most perfect and visible example of this is how a Jew eats. Most people are aware of the basics of kosher, that there are some things a Jew shouldn’t eat and that even the foods that are permitted need to be prepared in very certain ways. Really, though, that’s only the beginning. The Jewish table is not a feeding trough, but an altar. Each meal is a sacrifice, carefully and lovingly prepared. Just as in the times of the temple when the Priests would eat the sacrifices, both the meat of the animals sacrificed and the meal offerings, so to is each Jew like a Priest offering up and eating a sacrifice.
We bless Hashem before we eat or drink anything, thanking him for our food, but also acknowledging where our food came from. We have to know if a fruit or vegetable grew on a tree or from another plant or if something was made of certain grains. It requires awareness of how our food grows. In addition, there is a blessing that must be recited the first time we eat a fruit each year, which really makes each first time as if it is THE first time I had an apple or a peach. As I take a fruit in my hand, I have to know where it came from and remember if I’ve enjoyed that fruit already this year or if this is my first peach all year. Afterward, there are more blessings, again thanking Hashem for creating all this food.
Last night, in a class on the weekly parsha (weekly Torah portion), one of our Rabbis asked a very good question. If Hashem could create people any way He chose, why create them so that they needed to eat at all? Angels don’t have to eat and He could just as easily have created humans so that they never needed to eat anything. The answer was that everything contains sparks of holiness that need to be elevated and when it comes to food, we elevate those sparks back to the Creator by eating it. There’s a little more to it, though.
If I eat mindlessly, without blessings, intention, or awareness and then I use the energy from that food either wastefully or to do bad things, then I really am not elevating that food or the sparks of holiness within it at all. If, however, I eat only what I need and do so with intention and awareness and blessings to the Creator of it, then use the energy from that food to make the world a little better, doing acts of chesed (kindness) and mitzvos, then I certainly have elevated the sparks of holiness in that food, returning them to their source, Hashem.
From a Chassidic perspective, that’s the entire purpose of creation, for us to gather the treasure that our Father has hidden in this world and return it to Him. That treasure isn’t just in special buildings with stained glass and marble, but in everything around us every single day. It is even within us and every person we interact with.
Even something as simple as eating a piece of fruit can be holy and a deeply, profoundly religious act of sacrifice to Hashem.
To me, this heals a wound I felt as a child, not understanding the duality I was taught which seemed to contradict a greater truth that my heart already knew…that there is no separation between faith and religion and the mundane, that Hashem is everywhere and in all things and that our lives were meant to be filled with that awareness, not just reminded of it on certain holy days.
We are meant to be one as well.