The wonder of life

The wonder of life

Cantor Henry Shapiro
Cantor Henry Shapiro

Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1

As we open a new book, a new season, a new year, I can’t help but feel we’re in a movie sequel. We have a new generation and a new cast of characters, yet the details of the past storyline are still with us. We come across clues in the present movie that connect us to past episodes, enriching and advancing the plot of our new story.

Our new book is Shemot, and our new generation is many years removed from the previous chapter with Joseph and his brothers. Our main protagonist is of course Moses, and this parsha races through and by his life in five short chapters. It feels like the story fast-forwards and only pauses at key points. Right in the beginning of Chapter Three is one of those pivotal moments. I’m referring to the scene with the burning bush.

This literally becomes a turning point for Moses as he says to himself, ‘asura-na v’ereh, et hamareh ha gadol hazeh,’ Let me turn aside and see this great sight.

Moses sees a “great sight,” but not a miracle (nes) or wonder (niflah). This is a point pondered in Rav Soliveitchik’s essay, “What Makes A Nais A Great Miracle.” How do we distinguish between a small event and a great event or even a miraculous event? Essentially he says, it depends not only on the effect and results, but also that people appreciate it as something truly remarkable.

He and others also reference a statement in the Talmud regarding the festival of Chanukah: “The Sages waited a year before they established Chanukah as a holiday.” Why wait a year? To see if after the passage of time, it still was significant. That not only was it notable, but it was noteworthy.

I remember once looking through a list of No. 1 songs from the early 1900s up to the present day. Some of those songs are still with us on the radio as background in film or as remakes by new artists. Others are barely remembered if at all. This is the very definition of ephemera, or nearly so.

Likewise, some 19th-century art has almost no resonance today. An artist or style of painting that once commanded the very highest of prices and was most talked about then is not in demand in the current market. Hardly any museums exhibit this art or dedicate shows to those artists.

Does this mean there is only room in Judaism and in our Jewish texts for grand and important ideas? Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in “God in Search of Man”: “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not will to believe but a will to wonder.”

If we reflect on the vision of Moses, it was based on two simple and common things, a bush and the fire. That and an awareness that something was out of the ordinary. His great vision was grounded in his curiosity. Our sense of wonder need not be reserved for the obvious. We do not need earthquakes and lightning to get attention and to portend great things. Even the small matters, if we appreciate it.

We enter the movie theater, we have expectations based on reviews or word of mouth. What may seem the most passive of pastimes, engages us our inner critic to meet those expectations.

Cantor Henry Shapiro serves as spiritual leader at Parkway Jewish Center. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.