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A holy place of one’s own

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Jason Lander FLICKR

The past few weeks’ parshiot have been ones to make our eyes glaze over. Except for the episode of the Golden Calf, rich with drama, we are hard-pressed to pay attention to descriptions, repeated over and over, of the construction of the Mishkan, its coverings and vessels, the priests’ clothing and duties, etc.

If you, dear readers, loved every minute, I salute you. I found myself turning to the essays at the end of the Chumash, from which I garnered much more satisfaction, only to snap to attention for the Haftorah chanting.

Even the midrashic gloss on women’s gifts to the Tabernacle because they abstained from the sin of the Calf (I don’t believe it) was not enough to focus my attention. 

But there is a wonderful question embedded in both the Torah and Haftorah readings, in the stories of the Tabernacle and of Solomon’s building and dedication of the First Temple.

Why do we, as humans, need a place to call holy, a physical location somehow sanctified by its manifestation of the sacred?

After all, in Kings I, Solomon himself questioned the efficacy of trying to construct a place for God to dwell:

“But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built?”

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Before the First Temple was built in Jerusalem, and even after, many places were recognized as holy: Bethel, Shechem, Hebron, Shiloh, among others, not to mention high places that continued to attract worshippers. There, the Children of Israel tended to slide into idolatrous worship “under every leafy tree, on every hilltop,” imitating practices of the people of Canaan.

Eventually, Jerusalem and its Temple became the sole focus of true worship of the God of Israel.  What need did it – and all those other spots – fulfil?

We know that caves seem to have been focuses of worship 20,000 or so years ago, such as a cave in Europe where archeologists discovered bear skulls arranged in a significant manner.  We may not understand why, but clearly those who put them there felt a sense of the sacred power such a shrine would attract.

Travelling in Turkey some years ago, I was taken to a hilltop and cave where, even after many thousands of years, Turks still light candles and offer supplications.  Outside that same cave stands a phallic stone pillar. Current worshippers there may miss its significance.  Sadly, I can’t print the picture here, but it’s very obvious. The site clearly had and still has an aura of the holy about it.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, memory of it became a part of our prayer ritual.  To this day, the Kotel retains its sacred significance, even if it is now almost an item of idolatrous worship by its custodians (this may explain the battles over who gets to worship there).

Some argue that, with the rebirth of the Jewish state, the land itself now carries a unique sanctity, hence the deep attachment of the settler movement to its every stone and hilltop.

Now back to my question. Why do we need a physical place?  Surely the lofty mountain or the sea itself would do, as they are manifestations of a higher power.

No. For whatever reason, it seems not.  For one thing, we need not only a place, but also a community of worship in that place.  Perhaps that is part of the answer.

Recall this rabbinic story: when the community was threatened, the rabbi would go to the forest, light a fire, recite a prayer and the community would be saved.  The place, fire and prayer were eventually forgotten. All that remained were the story and the community to tell it.

That’s what we have now in our Chumash: the story. That will have to suffice.