We can find the sacred in places where we might not think to look

Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Isaiah 60:1-22

One of the great religious challenges of our generation is to learn to experience the presence of the Divine in all places and in all moments. We are challenged in this matter in two ways. First, we tend to divide the world into two distinct arenas: the world of the sacred, in which we perform whatever religious actions we do, like lighting Shabbat candles, doings acts of tikkun olam or going to the synagogue, and the rest of the world in which we live our daily lives. Second, we hamper the possibility of experiencing the Divine by over-thinking it. Rather than openly awaiting and embracing an encounter with the sublime, we turn God into a philosophical problem to be solved. The question of belief is an intellectual equation to be solved. Experience is the core of religious life.

The first of these challenges is addressed by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitz in his commentary on the commandment to bring first fruits to the Temple. Noting that the Torah requires the farmer to address the priest (Deut. 26:3), he teaches that this declaration is meant to suggest the spiritual meaning of the first fruits: “[The farmer] hints to him that even though the cohen works in the Holy Temple and he works in the field, nevertheless … it is perfectly clear that anywhere an action, no matter how simple, is done in the presence of holiness it is just like the service of the cohen.”

Standing in the Temple precincts, the farmer compares his work to that of the priest and feels emptiness, or perhaps, shame. Presenting his first fruits he remembers that every place, including his field, is a place where God’s presence dwells. Making his declaration to the priest brings the farmer to a moment of awareness, and to a fuller experience of the presence of God.

I once was invited to speak to the Jewish federation leadership in another community, people who were largely secular in their own lives but who devoted themselves to raising money for Israel and the local community. I put a tallit and a wallet on the table in front of them and asked them which was the holy object.

This being a Jewish audience, the vote was, ironically, unanimous. Everyone identified the tallit, which they rarely used, as the holy object. Not one could imagine that a wallet, with which one might give tzedakah, or redeem a Jew in danger, or save a human life, might be a vehicle to the presence of God. Nor had they ever considered taking a moment to state their sacred intention before making a solicitation or writing their charitable check. But that’s how you transform an ordinary event into an extraordinary one.

This is the Isbitzer’s solution to our second challenge. Bringing conscious awareness to our everyday action “in the field” by declaring our desire or intention to connect with the Divine can potentially help us have a greater sense of God’s presence. To experience this in our own lives, however, requires desire, effort and prayerful quiet. With this in mind, I encourage you, during these last few weeks before the High Holy Days, to experiment with readying yourselves for encountering the Divine. Perhaps this meditation might help:

Ribbono shel Olam, Holy One, I don’t really know how to talk to you, and I’m not even sure I know what you are. But I want to say thank you.

Thank you for my life, and for all the goodness and blessing in my life. Thank you for giving me the chance to know you. Help me to recognize you in all the ordinary moments of my life. I truly want to feel your presence. Help me become a vessel for your presence so that I might learn how to serve my community and the world around me. Ve-cheyn yehi ratzon — so may it be.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and founder of the Neshama Minyan.