Friday, August 2, 2013

Reeh

The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, can no longer be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location.  That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple.  “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, and He grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security, then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name: your burnt offerings and other sacrifices…” (Deuteronomy 12: 10-11)

Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place?  Moreover, how can God be confined to one location?  Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law, frequently repeated throughout Deuteronomy.  Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political.  In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital.  Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship.  Prayer is therefore the ideal.  Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice.  Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process.  Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited and confined to Jerusalem's Temple.  Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.

Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation.  It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people if it is unique and unparalleled.  When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives.  This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews.  For us it is a place of pilgrimage.  Because we can only visit it infrequently it gains power.      

Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized.  Many rituals were moved to the home.  Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small sanctuary.  The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience.  Place became secondary to time.  This is how Judaism remains.  We mark as holy, days. 
    
The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere 100 years ago was only a patch of sand. 

My God—here we have no Wall, only the sea.
But since you seem to be everywhere
you must be here too.
So when I walk here along the beach
I know that you are with me
and it feels good.
And when I see a tourist
beautiful and tanned
I look at her not only for myself, but also for you
because I know that you are in me
just as I am in you
and maybe I was created
so that from within me you can see
the world you created
with new eyes.

In Tel Aviv there are no ancient walls.  And yet this city is also holy becomes it teems with renewed Jewish life.  Thus, wherever we might find ourselves we mark Shabbat as holy.  This is why the Sabbath day is called by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sanctuary in time.

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