Sacred Places & Their Permanence
Looking at this week’s Torah portion, Parashat B’har, I’d like to focus on one of the last verses that we find in the portion for this week.
Here is the good news: This is the next to last portion in all of Leviticus. Next week, as we close out the reading of our parshah, as we close out the reading of our Torah reading next week, we will get to say, “Chazak, chazak, v’nit-chazek, be strong, be strong, and thus may we be strengthened,” together as one community, as we close the book of Leviticus, as we close all of the nasty little bits of Leviticus, and move on to Bamidbar, back into the wilderness, back into the book of Numbers.
This week, towards the end of the book of Leviticus, we read the single verse, “You shall keep my Sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary, for I am the eternal God” (Leviticus 26:2). This single verse takes two ideas, and places them in parallel with one another.
The two ideas are this: one, you shall keep My Sabbaths, i.e., it’s about the importance of observing sacred time. And, you shall venerate My sanctuary; meaning, it’s about the importance of being present in sacred space. It is in these moments and in these places, that we come to experience a touch of the Transcendent, the touch of God. When we recognize that both place and time is sacred, we open ourselves to a glimmer of something that is greater than ourselves.
Now, in the Jewish community, that concept of sacred time, it’s really not that much of a problem for us. After all, what are we doing here tonight if not celebrating sacred time? That’s Shabbat. Recall that Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath, “our Palace in Time.” No matter what happens to the week we have gone through or slogged through, come sundown, Friday night, we know that we get the gift of Shabbat. We know that we can let go of the burdens of the week gone by. We carry in or drag in those things that are joys, those little glimmers of that which was sacred in the middle of the week that we want to focus on on Shabbat. At the close of Shabbat, we take a little essence of that as well.
There’s a custom in Havdallah, where some will take a drop of the wine at the close of the service and place it on their eye lids. Now, it’s not just cheap mascara. It’s a way of recognizing the sweetness of Shabbat and carrying it forward into the rest of the week. Sacred time is actually pretty easy for the Jewish community.
Sacred spaces, this I want to argue, is challenging for us. This is something that has been a moving target of sorts. It’s been changing over time. Consider our own narrative. Consider the book that we are exiting, and moving into Bamidbar, into the wilderness. After all, we know what it means to be wanderers. We were a nomadic people for 40 years having left bondage in Egypt and made our way into the wilderness, only to come to Eretz Yisrael, to the Land of Israel. After we reached the Land of Israel, again we knew exile. Time after time again, across history, until 1948 sacred space was something that we longed for. “By the rivers of Babylon, there I sat and I wept,” the Psalmist said. “By the rivers of Babylon, I wished that I could be back in the land of Zion, but here I was, exiled.” Sacred space was that thing we longed for, it was not that thing that we actually experienced.
Yet, we figured out, as a community, how we could build sacred spaces as well. The synagogue itself: look around us. Hevreh has a gorgeous sacred space. Last year, though, some congregations struggled with their own sacred spaces. Mishkan Tefila, a historic synagogue in the Boston area, was reported as selling their building in Newton, Massachusetts to Boston College because they couldn’t maintain it any longer because of the size of the congregation. Kehillath Israel, another conservative synagogue in the Boston area, which had a large building in the Brookline area announced that they were remodeling and also selling off a portion of their physical plant, downsizing, because of the way that the community had gone. As they remodeled, they decided to create a campus that would be right for who they were in this period, in this time. They wanted their sacred space to reflect their sacred congregation as it is, not as the memory of who they were, and not as some grand dream of who they could be, but they wanted that building to represent them in the here and now. Then it was announced that Mishkan Tefila was moving into the building that KI was building, too. Their sacred spaces are evolving and changing.
Not from our tradition, but looking to the newspapers this week, for those of us that regularly read the Berkshire Eagle, every day this week on the front page was a report about how St. Francis, a predominate Roman Catholic church in North Adams was coming down, was being demolished. It’s steeple first, and then the rest of the building. This was the oldest church in North Adams, built in 1863. It’s been closed for eight years because of parish consolidation. There had been a number of attempts to try to re-open it, similar to our own St. James Place but it couldn’t be done.
In the reports each day this week, there were stories about people’s reactions, how sad people were to see this landmark come down. Why is it that people were so upset watching a derelict building come down? Think about the memories that that building held: the stories of sacred moments for a family, of weddings, of funerals, of lifecycle moments, those precious, sweet moments that we have as families, and as a community, in a sacred space.
There’s something about the idea of sacred space that we expect to be permanent. Ecclesiastes taught, “For everything there is a season. A time to gather stones, a time to build up.” We have to remember what was said at the close of that verse: There’s a time to cast away stones, as well. Our sense of permanence is something that we bring to our sacred space. It’s not something that the sacred space offers us, inherently. A church, after all, is just a building. A synagogue, itself, is just a building. What’s the little rhyme we teach nursery school kids when we put our fingers together, and our fingers up? Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open it up and there are the people. A synagogue is a building, a church is a building, but a congregation, that’s people. That doesn’t know space. That’s about relationships. That is where we find true sacred spaces.
For those of us who were part of the delegation that went to the Union for Reformed Judaism’s Biennial Convention this year, we got a taste of what it meant to create a temporary sacred space. Each two years, the reform movement comes together to hold a conference of 5,000 people. We meet at a large convention center and take over the whole convention center. There’s about 5,000 people who attend. This year, we were in Orlando. Picture the Shabbat: We’ve had time to head back to our hotel rooms, freshen up, prepare for Shabbat. Then we gather in the sanctuary, really the convention center, for an incredible Shabbat service. There’s a huge choir made up of people who love to sing from across the movement, from every single state, from the other provinces in Canada, from Israel. It’s incredible to see the people who will come together to lift up their voices in song. Congregations network with each other and try to figure, “I’ll sit here if you sit there, and we’ll figure out how to sit together.” Somehow, in this temporary space, a convention center, effectively a black box, some of the most sacred and moving services are assembled and brought together. It’s temporary, but still sacred. Permanence is not needed to experience that touch of the sacred.
It is sad, but congregations do let go of their buildings. I pray that our congregation will grow, and thrive, and be well in our spiritual home for many, many, many years. We also know, as the expression goes, that home is where your family is, and sacred, I would say, is where the congregation is. Our spiritual lives are regenerative. New sacred spaces are created and fostered wherever the congregation finds itself, there, to hold our most sacred moments, our most sacred times.
In this week’s Torah portion we read, “You shall keep My Sabbaths, and venerate My sanctuary, for I am the Eternal God.” Sacred time and sacred space, may we find ourselves in these moments, in these places. May we cherish them. There and then, find our own personal spiritual lives truly nourished.