Saturday 4TH March 2023 11th Adar 5783
Shabbat Zachor - The Sabbath of Remembrance
Exodus 27:20-30:10; Ezekiel 43:10-27; Hebrews 13:10-17
Inspiration and Perspiration by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Someone once asked a world renown scientist about his daily schedule. In his response, he remarked that his work involved 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.
The ancient Hebrew word for hard work is avodah. It is also the word that means “serving God.” What applies in the arts, sciences, business, and industry, applies equally to the life of the spirit. Achieving any form of spiritual growth requires sustained effort and daily rituals.
Hence the remarkable aggadic passage in which various Sages put forward their idea of klal gadol baTorah, “the great principle of the Torah.” Ben Azzai says it is the verse, “This is the book of the chronicles of man: On the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (Gen. 5:1). Ben Zoma says that there is a more embracing principle, “Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). Ben Nannas says there is a yet more embracing principle: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Ben Pazzi says we find a more embracing principle still. He quotes a verse from this parsha: “One sheep shall be offered in the morning, and a second in the afternoon” (Ex. 29:39) – or, as we might say nowadays, Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv. In a word: “routine.” The passage concludes: The law follows Ben Pazzi.
The meaning of Ben Pazzi’s statement is clear: all the high ideals in the world – the human person as God’s image, belief in God’s unity, and the love of neighbour – count for little until they are turned into habits of action that become habits of the heart. We can all recall moments of insight when we had a great idea, a transformative thought, the glimpse of a project that could change our lives. A day, a week, or a year later the thought has been forgotten or become a distant memory, at best a might-have-been.
The people who change the world, whether in small or epic ways, are those who turn peak experiences into daily routines, who know that the details matter, and who have developed the discipline of hard work, sustained over time.
Judaism’s greatness is that it takes high ideals and exalted visions – image of God, faith in God, love of neighbour – and turns them into patterns of behaviour. Halacha (Jewish law) involves a set of routines that – like those of the great creative minds – reconfigures the brain, giving discipline to our lives and changing the way we feel, think, and act.
Much of Judaism must seem to outsiders, and sometimes to insiders also, boring, prosaic, mundane, repetitive, routine, obsessed with details, and bereft for the most part of drama or inspiration. Yet that is precisely what writing the novel, composing the symphony, directing the film, perfecting the killer app, or building a billion-dollar business is, most of the time. It is a matter of hard work, focused attention, and daily rituals. That is where all sustainable greatness comes from.
We have developed in the West a strange view of religious experience: that it’s what overwhelms you when something happens completely outside the run of normal experience. You climb a mountain and look down. You are miraculously saved from danger. You find yourself part of a vast and cheering crowd. It’s how the German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) defined “the holy”: as a mystery (mysterium) both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). You are awed by the presence of something vast. We have all had such experiences.
But that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become. Judaism is about changing us so that we become creative artists whose greatest creation is our own life. And that needs daily rituals: Shacharit, Minchah, Ma’ariv, the food we eat, the way we behave at work or in the home, the choreography of holiness which is the special contribution of the priestly dimension of Judaism, set out in this week’s parsha and throughout the book of Leviticus.
These rituals have an effect. We now know through PET and fMRI scans that repeated spiritual exercise reconfigures the brain. It gives us inner resilience. It makes us more grateful. It gives us a sense of basic trust in the source of our being. It shapes our identity, the way we act and talk and think. Ritual is to spiritual greatness what practice is to a tennis player, daily writing disciplines are to a novelist, and reading company accounts are to Warren Buffett. They are the precondition of high achievement. Serving God is avodah, which means hard work.
If you seek sudden inspiration, then work at it every day for a year or a lifetime. That is how it comes. As a famous golfer is said to have said when asked for the secret of his success: “I was just lucky. But the funny thing is that the harder I practise, the luckier I become.”
The more you seek spiritual heights, the more you need the ritual and routine of halacha, the Jewish “way” to God.
 Mason Currey, Daily Rituals (New York: Knopf, 2013).
 The passage is cited in the introduction to the commentary HaKotev on Ein Yaakov, the collected aggadic passages of the Talmud. It is also quoted by Maharal in Netivot Olam, Ahavat Re’a 1.
 A point made by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his book Halakhic Man.