Rabbi Lori Shaller
I’ve been privileged to have visited and prayed at some of the most amazing holy places in the world. From 17th century churches in England to the Great Mosques in Cordoboa and X’ian; Poseiden’s Temple and Delphi in Greece to the Western Wall of the Temple, Church of the Holy Sepulcher and al-Aksa in Jerusalem; and to the hanging monastery and Buddha grottoes of Datong and Yungang, to name just some. What was true for me in every one of these places was that the ground throbbed, the air was ALIVE. I felt hyper-receptive to a huge variety of stimuli. It was as if all the souls who had prayed in those places over so many generations, all the souls of those who had built those places and in some cases, of those who had been buried in those places, were inhabiting those places with me while I was there. As we read in Torah and Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, in those places I felt I should take off my shoes, for the places I was standing were holy ground. I felt absolutely connected across time, cultural experience and religion to the spirits and The One Spirit in those places. And I often feel this way even in the not so ancient or glorious, the permanent and even temporary sacred spaces in the communities in which I daven or lead davenen here in the US.
In Exodus 25:8 God instructs Israel to build a Temple so that God might dwell among the people. Everyone was expected to participate in the building of the sanctuary. The holiness that would be manifested in space, time and the person would come about only through cooperation between God and every human involved. This suggests a somewhat radical idea: that there is a fundamental democracy in the building and inhabiting of holy space, which is not true, as we all know, in every aspect of Biblical Jewish life. But it’s there with regard to the building of the sanctuary.
Rabbi Perry Netter points out that there are fifteen chapters of the Hebrew Bible devoted to building and furnishing the Temple. He compares this to one chapter on creation and two chapters on the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Bible’s authors were meticulous in recording every detail of how the structure, altar and curtains, tables and lamps, and even the rings that would connect the fabrics to the structure, were to be made. Great craftspeople were called in to do the work, people of whom it was said they had “knowing” and “faithful” hands. These too were men and women, all contributing of their skill and knowledge. But it’s the individuals and the community they create and that community’s activity in relationship to Spirit that transform place into sanctuary or sacred space.
In Parshat Naso, we get in similar detail the names of the clans responsible for carrying the tabernacle from place to place and how the parts were to be carried. The Hasidic master, Noam Elimelkh taught a meaning for Numbers 7:9: “To the children of Kohat, he did not give (wagons); theirs is a holy burden, they carry it on their shoulders.” He takes us back to King Saul, who was a righteous leader. Once when God directed Saul to slaughter all the animals of a particular enemy, Saul wouldn’t do it. Noam Elimelkh explains that Saul was so righteous, he wouldn’t even sin for God! He was not successful as a leader, and Noam Elimelkh suggests this is because he was too perfect. Saul couldn’t fundamentally understand the people he ruled, he couldn’t understand their character flaws, because he didn’t have any. Noam Elimelkh teaches us that this verse about the clan of Kohat who were to carry the sacred vessels on their shoulders, (unlike the clans that got carts to carry the stuff for which they were responsible), exemplify the really good leaders, the tzadikim, who bring down the sacred energy, what’s called the Ruach h’Kodesh or sacred Spirit, or the Shefa, the Divine flow, and directs it toward the places that need it in his or her subjects. He turns hard physical work into an opportunity for connecting to spirit and helping others to make that connection.
I think that’s what happens when communities get together to build their sanctuaries. When people get together to work on their sanctuaries, they can bring down blessing. The community built together is what makes for sacred space. This is the feeling that transcends time. This is what we feel when we stand on holy ground.