1. Shabbat Shalom
2. When it comes to spiritual terminology, the English language always leaves something to be desired. Every language has certain terminologies that it uses very well and some words whose definitions that leave more questions than answers. French is considered a language of love. German is a technical language that is useful in science. Latin was used for years to describe many different branches of botany and biology. English is the language of capitalism and is very useful in describing financial instruments and the details between similar items for sale. For example, English has more words to describe cars than any other language.
3. But English is less useful for describing God and religion. We use words like blessing, divine, spiritual and prayer, but we only have a vague idea of what these words mean. How would we define what it means to “bless” someone? What exactly are we doing when we “pray”? It is kind of like trying to define a color, like Red or Blue. We know what colors are but they seem impossible to define.
4. “Holy” is one of these words that English has so much trouble with. What do we mean when we say that something is holy? We talk about holy books, but what is actually the difference between holy books and secular books? We can point to the “holy ark” but what makes this ark more “holy” than any other ark (by the way, what exactly is an “ark” anyway?) The Hebrew language is a better language for spiritual terminology than English. The Hebrew word for “holy” is “kadosh” and it implies that something is separate, set apart as special.
5. In the Torah, there are only three things that are called “kadosh”. The first is the seventh day, Shabbat. In the book of Genesis, God creates Shabbat and declares it a holy block of time. The second use of “kadosh” is found in the term “am kadosh” a “holy people.” The People of Israel are designated holy, set apart from all the other nations of the world. The third “kadosh” of the Torah is found in this week’s parsha. Moses is commanded to design and build the Mishkan, a sanctuary to God. God has commanded us to set apart a holy space.
6. Pagan cultures have always had a hard time with the Jewish concept of holy space. This is not because Pagans did not have temples and other holy sites. It is because the space designated as “holy” in Judaism is not any one space. Pagans would latch on to a tree, a mountain, a large stone and declare that it is a holy site. The People of Israel built a Mishkan, a holy site that was PORTABLE; it moved from place to place. Any place where it was set up was, for that time, “holy space” and when the Mishkan was moved, the physical space was no longer set apart. Only when King Solomon built the Temple of Jerusalem, did one space become holy for Jews. Until that time, wherever the tent, the Mishkan, was set up, that would be separate and sacred space until the tent was folded up and moved to another site.
7. God does declare another place holy. When Moses discovers the burning bush, he is commanded to remove his shoes because the ground upon which he stands is holy. Once the revelation ends, Moses can put his shoes back on as the sanctity of the place is gone. The priests who officiated in the Mishkan wore elaborate robes and headdresses, but they did not wear shoes; the land upon which they officiated was holy. Once the Mishkan was packed up and moved, they could put their shoes back on and the land returned to its normal state.
8. Perhaps now we can understand why, for two thousand years, we mourned the destruction of our Temple and the violation of our sacred space. It was one of the three original holy items in the world. When the Temple was destroyed, sacrifices stopped, Temple worship stopped and the pilgrimage stopped. The only way of prayer our ancestors knew was gone. Synagogues were important and became central to the Jewish community, but they never replaced the Temple of Jerusalem. We can even say that the Judaism we know today was built on the ashes of despair our people felt when the sacred space of Israel was destroyed.
9. If you have ever visited Israel (and if you have not visited Israel, you should) you know that when you visit the Kotel HaMaarivi, the Western Wall, the only remaining wall from the Temple of Jerusalem, there are big signs that inform Jews that it is forbidden to go up to the top of the Temple Mount, lest someone who is not a High Priest walk on the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. There are some very super pious rabbis who think that the place the High Priest only entered once a year should still be off limits for ordinary Jews.
10. But we must remember that once the Temple was destroyed, there was no lingering sanctity of the space. We don’t recall any of the places the Mishkan was set up, nor do we consider those places holy once the Mishkan moved on, so too, once the Temple was destroyed, there should be no lingering holiness that Jews or anyone else should fear. To venerate the Temple Mount as the last place the great Temple of Jerusalem stood is a worthy activity, but to suggest that Jews should not go there because it once was holy ground is flawed. There may be good reasons not to go on the Temple Mount, not the least of which is a matter of personal safety, but I don’t believe that it is holy ground anymore.
11. We live today in a world where sometimes it seems as if there are no holy spaces. Security cameras view our every move when we move from place to place in our cities. Many a famous athlete has found pictures and video of what he thought was done behind closed doors posted on the internet. Even politicians have found their secrets published for all to see, both for good and for bad. Stores have cameras that watch who goes in and out of the public bathrooms and dressing rooms; and to get on a plane today, we have the virtual equivalent of a strip search. There is no sacred space.
12. In fact, the only place where one can really be anonymous is in the virtual world. Hiding behind a screen and a keyboard, we can pretend to be whoever we want to be in a world so vast that it is very hard to discover who is behind what we see, hear and read on the internet. It is a world where secret people reveal the secrets of others. The internet, however, is certainly not a sacred space.
13. So where is the holy space for Jews today? The answer may surprise you. First of all, the Sages of the Talmud, who lived through the destruction of the Temple and had to face an uncertain future, declared that the new Jewish holy place would be the homes where Jews lived. That the family dinner table was the new alter, the food served there as if they were holy sacrifices and the rituals of the Table mirrored the destroyed Temple with its Hamotzi over bread and salt and closing with a Birkat Hamazon, prayers of thanks for not only the food but for the spiritual time of eating a meal in the presence of God. This holy meal, when served on the holy Shabbat was set apart from every other meal and the tradition tells us that for Shabbat dinner, angels escort us home from the synagogue so that we may eat our Shabbat meal in peace.
14. Getting back to our Parsha, Rabbis today have discovered the truth in the story of the Mishkan. Any space where a person seeks to find God can be holy space. At that moment, for that man or woman, when he or she opens a heart to all the spiritual possibilities, that space becomes Kadosh. It is not the particular place that matters; it is the heart of the person who is standing there. If we are standing on the beach watching a sunrise, or witnessing a sunset or if we see majestic mountains or gaze up to the starry night sky, the place we stand may be awesome but it is not holy until we utter a blessing “Oshe Maase Berayshit” for “ making the glorious works of creation”.
15. People come to synagogue for many reasons. Some come here to see friends they have not seen all week. Some come to shul to celebrate personal or family life cycle events. Some people come to synagogue to catch up on the latest gossip or to get the latest investment tips. Some come to shul for the outstanding brownies that we serve during the Kiddush and some come because they need to say Kaddish for a loved one. But the synagogue is not a holy space until we open our hearts in prayer. It is not enough to just read the words in the Siddur, we must let the words and their meaning open our heart, mind and soul to the sacred that is beyond. Only then can we say that the ground upon which we stand is holy.
16. God declares that the seventh day is Holy and God is the one who anoints the People of Israel as holy, but in any place we open our hearts to God, to the wonders of God’s creation, to the possibilities of God in our life; when we open our hearts to fulfill the Mitzvot, including the commands to love God and to love humanity, at that moment, the place we stand becomes holy ground.
17. We can turn any place into a holy place and any moment can become a sanctuary to God. It all depends on what we are doing in that place and in that moment. It is possible to make every place we stand holy and every moment a Temple to God. All we need to do is to use every minute of our life as if we are standing in the presence of God. It is not as hard as you might think. All it takes is the decision to turn our thoughts to God.
May we find God in the places we stand. And when we find ourselves feeling lost and alone, may we open our hearts, and the ground underneath us will become holy ground. Just don’t forget to take off your shoes!