Elevate the Mundane: Utilize the Trowel

Batman’s utility belt, the wide, super-cluncky yellow one that contained his critically important super-hero tools and weapons, has been a source of fascination for decades of young Batman fans.  The soldiers of ancient Israel had their own unique “utility belts,” but of a different sort.  Their belts of course primarily served as a way to keep their weapons on hand at all times.  But these belts had an additional tool that apparently was not at all typical of military belts of that era.  The standard issue belts of the Israelite army had a place next to the various weapon hooks and sheathes to attach a spade or trowel.  The verse explains openly why this tool was required: “when you sit outside, you shall dig with it; you shall go back and cover your excrement” (Devarim 23).  The next verse continues to explain that the Torah is not legislating a hygienic rule. Although a hygienic rule would be a valuable one, it is obviously outside the realm of the Torah’s purview and also likely self-evident.  This law actually has a religious basis, but one that still requires an explanation:  “For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to rescue you and deliver your enemies before you; so your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see a shameful thing among you and turn away from behind you” (ibid.).  It is understandable that a place that the Almighty “walks” in must be fitting, respectable, and clean.  What is ostensibly not understandable, is what the Almighty would be doing walking in the army camp in the first place!  If the camp would have been the venue of a spiritual retreat featuring a daily schedule packed with prayer, study, and meditation, it would make sense that rules must be in place to guarantee that the camp is fit for God’s presence.  But the rough, tough, and grisly environment of an army camp is a place that seems to be totally incompatible with spirituality in any form.  On the eve of a battle, there is no time to do anything but sharpen swords, fasten battle gear, and get mentally prepared to fight.  How does maintaining camp holiness come into the picture?

A closer look at the nature of the Israelite Army reveals that there actually can be room for more than just the mundane even in an army camp.  One indication of the unique expectations of this army is its strict requirements to allow one to qualify as a battle-worthy soldier.  In the ancient world, a typical soldier was not held to any particular moral, ethical or religious code.  This army, however, required its soldiers to be free of any sin at all before joining its ranks (see Rashi, Devarim 20:8).  This implies that this group of soldiers did actually have a well-developed spiritual and religious side.  It is also fascinating to examine the historical record of the activities of one manifestation of this army, the Hasmonean fighters known as the Maccabes.  The apocryphal Sefer Chashmonaim or Book of the Maccabes, probably written either in the last century before the Common Era or in the first century after, contains some details of how their army operated.  It records that the Maccabean soldiers not only engaged in group prayer but also undertook penitential fasting on the actual days of battle themselves!  Thus it is clear that although these Jewish armies certainly could not and did not forgo any of the preparations necessary for battle whatsoever, they were still able to infuse their camp with spirituality; any camp that is infused with spirituality must be maintained in a way that is fitting for the Almighty’s presence.

We all have our own “camps” – the activities, circumstances, and relationships that make up our lives.  As long as we walk this earth, we must be involved with its physical, mundane reality.  But as human beings, in addition to our physical capabilities and talents, we are endowed with deep spiritual potential.  Some people let their spiritual side atrophy; others keep it suppressed unless they are seated in front of a siddur in a synagogue or engaged in an overtly religious activity.  The ideal use of this capacity is to follow the lead of the Israelite Army and its unique “utility belt” and trowel.  When we are able to be conscious of the bigger ideas, attitudes, and ideals of life – when we are able to be attuned to spirituality – even when we are engaged in the mundane, we will succeed in living up to our unique potential and in elevating our “camps” with us.


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