On turning each moment, each act, into a holy one

Numbers 30:2-36:13

Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2

by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

An apparently simple phrase in this week's parashah gives rise to a most extraordinary spiritual teaching.

As our parashah opens, Moses speaks to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, "This is what God has commanded" (Numbers 30:2), and then proceeds to articulate the laws of vows. Listen to how this introductory phrase explodes into a world of meaning in the hands of one commentator, the Korban He'ani.

"Moses commanded the heads of the tribes to teach the Israelites to say before every action that they would undertake, 'This is what God has commanded.' Before every deed, each one should say: 'I hereby do this thing for the glory of God.' As it says in the Shulhan Arukh, citing an earlier rabbinic teaching, 'Let all your actions be for the sake of heaven, even optional things like eating and drinking…Let all of your care for your body be in the service of your Creator…'" (Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 184).

We are asked to engage in all of our activities — from the grandest to the most apparently ordinary — as potential avenues of holiness. In every moment — when we arise in the morning, when we eat, when we greet our loved ones, when we work, when we rebuke our child or struggle with our partner — we are asked to consider our actions before we undertake them. We are asked to consider each word we speak, each train of thought we choose to follow, which activities we choose to pursue, in the service of God.

One need not imagine a supreme being, a bearded Heavenly Father watching our every deed, to appreciate this teaching. This teaching may guide and inspire even those who believe that the Divine is not a being at all, but a power, a process, a dimension of mystery in the midst of life.

Even if we do not actively believe in a God who can see and hear, condemn and affirm, reward and punish, we can still strive to dedicate all of our actions to the service of Creation, to the well-being of all things, to the perfection of the world. What if we asked ourselves even 10 times a day before we were about to speak or act, "Can I do this so that my actions and words will serve life?"

Our commentary particularly emphasizes that we should undertake our daily care of our bodies for the sake of heaven. Perhaps the commentator uses this example simply because our eating, drinking and personal care are activities in which we are most regularly engaged. Or perhaps he intended to call our intention to the particular potential for holiness in how we consume food and drink, or how we choose to treat our bodies with respect and care, to cultivate health rather than pathology in our lives.

In our day, we are regularly reminded that we have many choices as to how to care for or abuse our bodies. This commentary takes these concerns to a much deeper level. Perhaps our choices of healthy food, regular exercise and adequate sleep, are the most basic ways in which we may regularly give thanks for the life we are given, and honor the creation of which we are a part.

There is hardly an area of activity that could not be transformed if we asked ourselves moment by moment, "Can I do or say this in the interest of perfecting the world?" Whenever we are in relationship with another, whenever we participate in the life of community, whenever we are engaged in our work in the world, we might ask ourselves this question.

I know that in my own life, there are many words that I would never speak if I carried this intention in my heart throughout the day. I would be kinder, more respectful, more compassionate if I regularly asked myself this question. What is more, moving through even an "ordinary" day with this focus clearly in mind would make each day into holy time, a day in which I devoted myself to living reverently, aware of the One in whose presence I live.

May we remember that we may serve life in all of our deeds, and make even the most ordinary of days into holy time.