Sermon – The special and the regular

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 17 March 2018

What do you do if you are a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem and you are running out of sheep?

It’s not, I’m guessing, a question that has been keeping you up at night.

Nor is it one that, as Reform Jews, we hope will ever again be a real, practical dilemma.  One of our core values, one feature that distinguishes Progressive Judaism from other parts of the Jewish world, is that we do not pray for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem – this is not part of our liturgy because we do not understand that model as being the pinnacle of the human relationship with God.

Nonetheless, let’s explore the question.  It’s found in Tractate Menachot of the Babylonian Talmud – a bit of the Talmud that primarily deals with various kinds of sacrifices of animals, birds, and grain.  The kind of stuff that we read about in today’s first scroll, when we read from the portion Vayikra.

The Talmud asks, if you find yourself on a festival day, or on Shabbat day – the days on which there used to be a special additional offering in the temple – a korban musaf – but you only have one sheep left, do you use it?  Even if the consequence will be that you don’t have a sheep for the regular daily offering – the korban tamid – the next day?

Which takes precedence?

There are two possible answers.  One is that you should use it for musaf – that it is more important to make the special day as special as possible – in the words of the Talmud, the korban musaf, the musaf offering is more holy.  This seems quite logical.  Those special days, those extraordinary ceremonies, add delight, honour, joy to our lives.  When we can make something special we should.

But there is another possibility.  The other is that the sacrifice should be set aside for tomorrow’s regular process – the Korban Tamid – for the regular life of the Temple. Because what really matters is the ordinary, the day to day, keeping things going.

Tractate Menachot doesn’t answer the question about the sheep – which is the sort of thing I rather like about the Talmud, but which I know some people find utterly infuriating.

Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, though, there is clarity.  When seeking to balance the special and the everyday, it is the everyday that wins out.  There is a halachic, a Jewish legal, principle – “Tadir v’she’Eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem” – if you have something that comes frequently, and something that comes less frequently, the more frequent takes precedence.

We lived an example of this principle this morning.  We had – it will not have escaped your notice – a lot of Torah.  Three scrolls – the regular weekly reading, the special scroll read at the beginning of the new month that happened to fall today, and the once a year reading for Shabbat HaChodesh.  And we read them in that order – because “Tadir v’she’Eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem” – the weekly came first, then the monthly, then the special passage that it is only read once a year.

Every Friday night we live another example.  The House of the sage Hillel gave this as one of the reasons that during Kiddush, we recite the blessing on wine, which is made any time we drink wine, before the special blessing marking Shabbat as a holy day.  Another example – those who daven on a weekday will first put on Tallit and then put on Tefillin.  That which comes more frequently trumps that which is worn less often.
You get the idea.

While we may not have the dilemma of sheep availability, we might find ourselves in similar dilemmas, and again, the principle “Tadir v’she’Eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem” applies.  So we could imagine a situation where we have not checked whether we have enough candles in the synagogue cupboards on erev Shabbat Chanukah, and we need to decide whether to light the Shabbat candles or the Chanukiah.  Which to do?  “Tadir v’she’Eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem” – Shabbat candles take precedence.

“Tadir v’she’Eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem” is not just a legal principle, it is also a way of thinking about the world.
Instinctively, we often give great prominence to that which is special, unusual, occasional – life cycle events, birthdays and the like.  And these are important in adding joy to our lives.  But “Tadir v’she’Eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem” reminds us that this cannot be at the expense of the everyday.  That equally important – more important – is to establish patterns that make the everyday sacred; that the health of our relationships, our sense of personal wellbeing is about making the mundane special not making the special extra-special. This is in part a question of allocation of resources, but it is also – indeed, much more – about allocation of brain space.  It is about remembering to do the everyday – taking out the bins as a sacred act; acknowledging one another not only on special occasions but everyday; looking around at the world – “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet” as Stephen Hawking put it.

This is a fundamental aspect of Jewish life – that the mitzvah, the sense of commandedness, that pervades our everyday interactions, is as important as, for example, the mitzvah of observance of Shabbat.  The korban tamid is no less important than the korban musaf – if anything, the opposite.

Tractate Menachot might not reach an answer but we can.  Were you to be a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem without enough sheep for the sacrificial process, the most important thing would be to privilege the frequent.
And similarly, we should seek to privilege the everyday in our lives, to bring that sanctity into our regular activity.  And for that, no sheep are required – just time, effort, and care.