The Majesty of Quotidian

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai
27 Iyar 5778 — May 12, 2018

You do not have to be a basketball fan to be wowed by Lebron James.

His story is not only a basketball story. It is a human story.   He is finishing up his 15th year in the NBA.  He is 33.   That is very old in NBA years, where many of the players are in their early twenties.  And unquestionably he has the least talented team of any of the NBA teams still competing in the playoffs.   All the other teams have multiple superstars.  The Cavaliers don’t. They just have Lebron and a bunch of journeyman players.

And yet, Lebron has been playing not only better than any 33-year old has ever played.  He is playing as well as he has ever played. Older Lebron is out-competing younger Lebron.  All the metrics of basketball, points scored, assists, rebounds, minutes on the court, clutch shots made that win the game—all those metrics point to this year as his finest hour.

This seems to be a Lebron James sermon that would be good for basketball fans and sports enthusiasts.  But stay with me now.  This is a sermon that belongs in shul on a Shabbat morning, because it is about you, about me, about all of us.

But to make that case I need first to talk about a fancy word, an SAT word, that nobody ever uses.  The word is quotidian, which has two definitions.

The first definition of quotidian is: “occurring every day, daily.”

Pause here.  How do we understand what happens every day?  How do we value what we do every day?  Does what we do every day suffer for its familiarity?

All of which leads to the secondary meaning of quotidian, which is “ordinary or common place.”  What we do every day runs the risk of becoming boring.

Think about your morning routine.  You wake up. You try to coax another day out of your weary body. You brush your teeth, brew a pot of coffee, take the dishes out of the dishwasher, catch up on the morning news, shower and get dressed for the day.  Maybe your morning routine involves prayers. Perhaps it involves a workout, yoga, running, stretching.  Perhaps it involves calling people you stay in touch with every morning.  Perhaps we reach for our cell phones and catch up on texts and emails that are somehow always waiting for us every fresh morning.

Think about the routines of your morning, how we do that day after day, forever. Does repetition lead to boredom?

In 1921, the poet Wallace Stevens answered this question yes when he coined the term “the malady of the quotidian.”  Quotidian is not just boring, the poet tells us.  It is a malady.  What we do every day does not only suffer from repetition.  We suffer enduring all that repetition.

Is Wallace Stevens right? Or might there be some other way to frame our daily deeds?

The Torah tells us that there was a sacrifice called the tamid.  The word tamid means perpetual.  This was a sacrifice that had to burn every morning and every evening of every day.  The main point of the perpetual sacrifice was that it was perpetual.  The light was always on. The fire was always burning. Forever.

How does that happen?  Answer:  It doesn’t just happen.   In describing the tamid sacrifice, the Torah coins this evocative  phrase, baboker baboker, morning in, morning out.  Morning in and morning out the priest had to remove the ashes from yesterday’s sacrifices.    Then he had to put fresh logs of wood in for today’s sacrifices.  Ashes out, logs in.  Baboker baboker. Every day. Forever.

That sounds an awful lot like Wallace Stevens’ “malady of quotidian.”

But then the Torah shares why the priest does this every day:  eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach loh tichbeh.  A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar. Do not let it go out.

There is a higher purpose to all these daily rounds, namely keeping a fire burning, never to go out.  The daily chores, and the higher purpose, are totally connected.  Ashes out, logs in, make a perpetual fire possible.

The Torah here takes the stuff we do every day and reframes it from the malady of quotidian to the majesty of quotidian.  The quotidian now has majesty because it makes higher purpose possible.

Which brings us back to the King of basketball, Lebron James.  What we see now is the eish tamid tukad al hamezbeach, the perpetual fire burning on the altar.  We see a seemingly ageless 33 year old, 15 year veteran outperforming much younger athletes and playing the best basketball that has ever been played on planet earth.  But like the biblical kohein, who every single day had to take the ashes out and put the logs in, Lebron’s greatness this season did not just happen.

After Shabbat is over, google “Lebron running the court video.”  It will show you what he did this past summer on an ordinary summer day, August 22, 2017, to be exact.  The video is 1 minute 1 second long.  It shows Lebron, already the greatest player in the history of the game, still working incredibly hard to perfect his craft.  It shows him running the full length of the court and dunking, eight times, in 1 minute, 1 second.  Pure work. Pure quotidian.

Why is he still working so hard on a summer day?  Because you can draw a straight line from that practice and that hard work to the unparalleled success he has had this year.  Perpetual fires do not just happen.  Perpetual fires only happen if you tend them perpetually.

Consider the folks here at Temple Emanuel who prepare breakfast every morning after our daily minyan.  They come in at 6:00 am, they open up the building, and what they do is pure quotidian.  They toast bagels, brew coffee, set the table for 15 or 20 people, put out spreads, put out drinks, daven, encounter every person who comes to the minyan, serve breakfast with a smile, and then clean the whole thing up, do every dish, put away all the food, sweep everything clean.  That is every morning of every day from 6 to 7 and then after davening from 7:45 to 8:30. And why do they do this every day?  Because it makes a perpetual fire possible—a community that welcomes its members in warmth, prayer and friendship every morning.

What are the ashes you take out and the logs you put in?  What is your perpetual fire?

If you are a teacher, you have your ashes and logs.  Every day you face a classroom of students, lesson plans, grading papers and exams, parents who have concerns.  Can you find a perpetual fire in knowing that in a world where the very notion of truth is under attack, where reading and learning and knowing and having expertise are devalued, there is such a thing as learning, there is such a thing as truth, and you are inspiring the next generation to believe in it, to work hard for it, to pursue it.

If you are a doctor, you have your ashes and logs, a waiting room full of patients, hassles with the bureaucracy of managed care.  Can you find a perpetual fire in knowing that you are bringing healing and relief and life to people who are stricken and desperate and are relying on you?

If you are a lawyer, you have your ashes and logs, timesheets that must be filled out, hours that must be billed, bills that must be sent out and collected.  Can you find your perpetual fire in coming through for clients who count on you?

If you are a salesperson, you have your ashes and logs, widgets to sell, customers to schmooze, early morning flights to make, competitors to deal with.  Can you find your perpetual fire in helping your customer get what they need and in helping your company and its employees thrive?

If you devote your energy to home, you know only too well your ashes and logs. Dishes, bills, laundry, garbage, carpool, making and cleaning up breakfast, lunch and dinner, homework.  None of this ever ends. But can you find your perpetual fire in creating a home that is a sanctuary for your family, a place of love and joy and renewal, a home where your loved ones thrive because of the love and care you put into it?

Recently I was at a shiva for a family that had lost its father.  After we davened maariv, one of the grown children was recounting a chapter of her father’s life that had remarkably not come up until then.  The children did not mention it when I met with them at the house.  The chapter did not come up at his funeral.  But at the shiva, this daughter recounted that for ten years, her father was a caregiver who faithfully attended to their mother who suffered from Parkinson’s. 36 hour days for 10 years.  That is a lot of ashes and logs.  There is no glory in 36 hour days. No glamor. No headlines. No one is looking when the caregiver is present day after hard day.  But at the end of his days, all those ashes, all those logs, led to a perpetual fire of character, loyalty, decency, steadfastness, a beautiful humanity.  The perpetual fire of role modeling how important it is to do the right thing when no one is looking. That is the majesty of quotidian.  Truly no King, not even Lebron, could do anything more important.  Shabbat shalom.