April 2, 1998
Parashat Zav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)
A few summers ago, we went on a driving trip tothe Grand Canyon. I remember one particular day, as I stood near sometourists high up on the edge of the canyon, and looked down into adeep and beautiful gorge that seemed to stretch on forever. Amid allthe "Oohs" and "Aahs," I overheard one of the tourists remark to hisguide, "Wow, I sure would have liked to be here when this was beingmade." The park ranger turned to the man and quietly replied, "Youare."
I remembered that moment as I read this week'sTorah portion. I remembered how easily we forget where we are, andthe miracles we witness every day. Leviticus is usually our leastfavorite book of the Torah because it is filled with so many detaileddescriptions of the "Priest-as-butcher" carving up a host of animalsfor every possible act of human sin or transgression. But perhaps allthis priestly butchering was the way our biblical ancestors createdfor getting our spiritual attention.
They needed it then, and we need it now, because,most of the time, we are simply too stressed and busy to notice muchof anything. So this week's Torah portion comes to remind us thatwhat separates us as human beings from the rest of the animal kingdomis self-consciousness. I am certain that my cat doesn't feelgratitude for life's blessings. How do I know (you might ask)? I knowbecause, in all the years I have fed him, I have never once heard himrecite a blessing over his food.
OK, so cats don't recite blessings. But that's thepoint. What makes us unique as human beings is our ability, by sheeract of will, to transform the everyday into the holy. Just as thetraditional morning blessing refers to God as "the One who spoke andthe world came to be," so we speak and create holiness, sacredness,transcendence in our lives.
We bring that holiness into the world through theact of saying blessings. When we sit down to eat and recite ablessing over our food, we are reminding ourselves that theopportunity to eat is itself a blessing. That having food on ourtable is a blessing. That having the creativity to take the rawmaterial of grain and grind it into flour, and then turn it intosomething delicious to eat is a miracle that passes unnoticed everyday.
Reading this week's portion reminds us that wehave the exact same emotional/spiritual needs today as our ancestorsdid thousands of year ago -- the need to experience the wonder andmystery of life, and to utter words of thanks for the myriadblessings that fill our lives. Since we don't have priests anymore,the rabbis remind us to be "a kingdom of priests," and to see ourdining-room tables as our altars, the food we eat as our offerings,and the words of blessing we speak over them as equal to thesanctifying acts of the priests of old.
On the way back from the Grand Canyon, we stoppedat a roadside restaurant for lunch. At a nearby table, a young boywas impatient, irritable and, obviously, hungry; it was all he coulddo to stay in his chair. Finally, a hamburger and French fries wereplaced in front of him. With delight, he grabbed for the burger, thencaught himself in mid-reach, folded his hands tightly, closed hiseyes and uttered a quick, silent grace. Then his eyes popped open,and he dove into his lunch with relief and delight.
Leviticus reminds us to pause in the midst of ourhunger, to notice life's simple gifts, and to speak the words ofthanks that can transform any moment into an encounter with the holy.
Steven Carr Rueben is the author of "Childrenof Character -- Leading Your Children to Ethical Choices in EverydayLife" (Canter & Associates, 1997) and the senior rabbi ofKehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.