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Holy Places

Our homes are called a mikdash ma’at, a small sanctuary, because this is where Judaism, and Jewish values are most lived. We can pray there. We can eat there. We can offer words of healing there. We can most importantly rejoice there. This is why as maddening as this pandemic continues to be, meeting on Zoom or livestream for what is now nearly two years, makes perfect Jewish sense.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, we sanctify time rather than place, moments rather than even mountains. We do not urge people to pilgrimage to far off destinations but instead compel them to allow a day, the day of Shabbat, to transport them to another place.

And yet, this week we read God’s instruction, “Build for me a sanctuary that I dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) This is followed by a list of all the items the Israelites will need to build a portable tabernacle for God. It is quite an exhaustive list. Gold, silver and copper. Blue, purple and crimson yarns. Tanned ram skins and even dolphin skins.

Despite this, and despite the approximate thousand years that the temple stood in Jerusalem, Judaism, and in particular rabbinic Judaism, argued that we don’t need a special place to do Jewish rituals. All we need are ten people, some prayerbooks and of course a Torah scroll. If you have the right books and the right amount of people, it does not matter where you are. You can be at the beach, at the synagogue or as we have come to know all too well, our homes.

And yet despite the fact that this is true and philosophically sound, I find myself missing my places, and yearning for our places. It is not so much that I love the gym, and most especially the pool, but I miss the camaraderie of my fellow swimmers. I find myself missing as well not the concerts or the movies, but even, and perhaps most of all, the casual conversation struck up with strangers as we wait in line or for the gates to open.

We may not know each other but standing in those lines we know we share a love of the Blues or Bruce or likewise have a child who is crazy about Harry Styles. There are the people who were always at Starbucks at the same time or on the same train at the same hour. Familiar faces whose names you may not know but who made those places into something grand and special. And now even when we venturAe to these places, we avoid those conversations and the company of strangers. “They could have Covid,” we think to ourselves.

Perhaps place is not about the gold and silver, but about the people who likewise congregate in there. Is the synagogue the same when no one is there? Is it beautiful and majestic and most of all, holy when no one sits in its sanctuary’s pews? I think not.

This is why the Torah also declares that everyone who participates in the building of the sanctuary must have a heart who moves him or her to do so. And while these verses are clearly talking about the bringing of all the material supplies needed for building the ancient sanctuary, I would like to suggest another reading. In essence the Torah says, tell those whose heart is so inclined to bring gold, silver and copper.

Only together can we build God’s sanctuary.

The Hasidic rabbi, the Sefat Emet depicts the Shechina, the Divine presence on Earth, as a homeless wanderer. It is as if God’s presence is looking for a hot meal and a place to spend the night. Each time we welcome her in and bring her out of the darkness, we build that sanctuary anew, furnishing a comfortable and cozy room in our heart so that she may dwell within us.

What makes a place a special place is that our hearts must be united, together. What makes a place holy is that unity of purpose. It can be standing in line with other like-minded Bruce fans waiting to get into the Garden or it can be sitting beside our fellow congregants waiting to sing Lecha Dodi.

That is what transforms a place into a holy sanctuary. Of course, we can do that anywhere, but it is so much easier when you go to the same place week after week.

Entering the synagogue’s doors brings our hearts together as one.