We often think of holiness as the pinnacle of our achievements, such as when we are at our best, our most thoughtful, our most patient, our most spiritual.
Holiness represents the best that we can be. Just a few minutes ago, we all stood for the Amidah, the central prayer in Jewish worship. Our Rabbis suggest that whereas the Sh'ma talks about God, in the Amidah, each of us talks to God. The Amidah allows each of us to have an individual audience with God, concluding in a very personal and intimate silent prayer.
Our services do not begin with the Amidah. The Amidah is a climax to our Shabbat service. We need to build up to it because the achievement of holiness and theological connection take a certain amount of effort. We have to earn our audience with God. And so, we engage in some warm-up spiritual exercises, eventually reaching the heights of the angels.
We can't always be at these high spiritual levels, however. Each week, each Shabbat, we have to go through the process of starting with Kabalat Shabbat, moving forward through Bar'chu and Sh'ma, recounting the history of our redemption with Mi Chamocha, and only then are we ready for the Amidah. We may stand on peaks of holiness and spirituality, but we must realize that we get there only after the efforts of climbing. Secondly, we must descend.
This is the case with the Israelites.
Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for 420 years. God performed a series of 10 miracles and signs for them, and then just as it all seemed for naught, as the Egyptians came bearing after them with horse and chariot, God miraculously split the Sea of Reeds. Following this celebratory march of freedom, the Israelites stood under Mount Sinai, hearing God's voice give them what would be known forever as the Ten Commandments.
But then things change. It gets quiet. There are no public displays of God's miraculous power. There are no plagues, no miracles. For 40 days the Israelites have no direct experience with God. In addition to that, Moses left the group as well. Without God's presence and Moses' instruction, they do not know what to do.
Understanding all of this helps to explain what happens next: the worship of a golden calf. Along with Aaron's help, the Israelites build this golden idol, so that they can recapture those powerful feelings of holiness and spirituality.
When Moses finds out about this, he is upset. He is so enraged, in fact, that he throws down the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The tablets crash at the base of the mountain, splintering into thousands of pieces.
After calming down, Moses crafts a new set of tablets, and these new tablets accompany the Israelites on their 40 year trek toward the promised land.
And here is where the story takes an interesting turn. In Numbers, the Torah recounts that the Israelites journeyed a three-day distance and that the Ark of the Covenant journeyed before them a three-day distance. Rashi's comments invoke some serious head-scratching: The broken pieces of the Tablets were placed in this ark.
According to Rashi, when Moses shattered the original set of commandments, the various shards and pieces were gathered up and protected. Just as Jewish newlyweds save the shards of the destroyed glass at the end of a marriage ceremony, the remains of the original tablets were saved, protected, and placed into the Ark of the Covenant.
I started all of this by talking about holiness.
The incident with the Golden Calf teaches many important lessons. Tonight, however, I want to focus on just one: Holy experiences are not limited to the high moments of our lives. Holiness does not only happen when God splits the Red Sea, or when we gather to hear the Ten Commandments. Holiness can also take place during the next 40 days - the period of quiet that comes after the encounter with God, after the epiphany. Holiness can be part of "normal" life.
That is why I continue to find it so insightful that the broken pieces of the tablets were placed into the Ark of the Covenant. Those broken pieces challenge us to be holy even after the personal audience with God at the Amidah, even after the life-cycle event, the wedding, the baby-naming, the bat-mitzvah.
Our lives are not lived crossing the Red-Sea, standing under Mount Sinai or having a 40 day summons with God to create the Torah. Most of our lives are similar to the Israelites' experience of those 40 days; quiet ... routine ... normal. We should not strive to fill our lives with the epiphanies of holy moments. We should fill them with holiness. And as we march forth in our lives, let us carry the broken tablets with us, reminding ourselves that we can be holy anywhere, if only we choose to be.