Thursday, April 28, 2011

Always Fresh

While most of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, deals with the cycle of holy days, a section at the end deals with the subject that dominates the book of Leviticus: priestly offerings. Thus the text teaches: “You shall take choice flour and bake it into twelve loaves . . . Place them on a pure table before the Eternal One in two rows, six to a row.” These loaves—one for each of the twelve tribes—were known as lechem panim, often translated as “shewbread” since they were baked for display rather than eating.

Unlike many of the offerings, which were repeated daily, these loaves were replaced just once a week. With this in mind, the Talmud notes: “A great miracle was performed with the shewbread, for when it was removed it was as fresh as it had been when it was set out" (Menachot 29a). To which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century founder of modern Orthodoxy, adds: “These Talmudic words are not to be taken literally. They convey the idea that the sanctuary was immune from the boredom and habit that afflict many religious institutions. Rituals did not grow stale or obsolete there.”

The commentary here points to a classic tension in Jewish tradition, between keva—that which is fixed and traditional, in text and ritual—and kavvanah, which is the spirit of spontaneity and focused intention. Much of Judaism is about following standardized practices; the challenge is to do so while still maintaining vitality.

Of course this is true in many, many areas of our lives: our jobs, our parenting, our relationships. We are, in significant ways, creatures of routine—and we need the order and stability that our set routines bring. Who would want a life with no anchors, with no set patterns? At the same time, we must take care to avoid falling into ruts, where we simply go through the motions with no real passion or intensity. We need both: the fixed and the fresh, keva and kavvanah.

And both are embodied in this season of spring. It is a time of renewal, of spontaneity and joy. Yet part of that joy comes from understanding that spring’s rebirth is itself part of an on-going fixed cycle. We take comfort in the knowledge that spring follows winter, and that summer will follow spring.

A challenge: as you go through the week, consider which aspects of your daily schedule are routine and which are new and varied. See if you can bring a little more intention to that which is routine. How can you act more consciously in your relationships and in your Jewish life? In other words, how can you be more like the shewbread—constant and reliable, yet ever fresh and new?

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