Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi, legal mediator, advocate

Finding Our Place

Jacob's Ladder (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1649)

Many of us today are in our place, yet strangely not so.

Students in university, yet not able to fully enjoy being on campus. Children in school, yet in a classroom capsule. People at work, meeting from their dining room table. A couple exercising, running the stairs of their apartment building. Grandparents at home, with grandchildren limited to being outside the house. There are older folk on their balconies, wondering when this will all end. Where is our place? Where do we really belong?

Our tradition teaches that makom, place, is important. When I was in university and later, in the great libraries of  the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, or the Sifriyah Ha’le’umit in Jerusalem, I had my regular place. As I arranged my material, the setting put me at ease and enabled me to move into my studies.

A familiar space may give us comfort, link us to memories, enable us to sit with acquaintances, friends and family. Although you are in your place, in your home, you are not in your regular place, in your shul.

The Talmud in Brakhot (6a) teaches that we should pray in synagogue in a makom kavu’a, our usual spot, attributing this to Avraham who is associated with establishing the morning Shaharit service. In Genesis, we read that “And Avraham got up early in the morning…” The end of that verse teaches us about Avraham’s prayer and the concept of a makom kavu’a: “…to the place where he had stood before the Eternal.” (19:27)

When we are in mourning, we are instructed to move from our makom kavu’a, to experience in another way our profound loss, a sense of displacement. In a synagogue, if the mourner moves, he or she may, in turn, disrupt another person’s space, who may, subsequently disturb another’s space. In this way, when we grieve, our pain ripple through our community. Death puts us in a different place.

For the first time in recent memory, the vast majority of Jews will not be in their makom kavu’a for Yom Tov. Although we are not displacing others, we are grieving. We so much want to be in synagogue to celebrate, to reflect together on the year past and to ask for blessings for the year to come.

I believe that there is a wellspring of wisdom in our Torah tradition that can help us to navigate our spiritual displacement. In Genesis, encounters between the Divine and human are often identified by a place name and by the term makom.

Avram proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, in that makom … Avram invoked the Eternal by name. .אל־מקום המזבח אשר־עשה שם…ויקרא שם אברם בשם ה. After the Revelation at Sinai, the people of Israel are instructed to build an earthen altar and are told, בכל־המקום אשר אזכיר את־שמי אבוא אליך וברכתיך, in every makom where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.

But a competing tradition, focusing on one place, slowly began to gain significance. It begins in the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, when Avraham set out with Yitzhak for the place that God has told him. וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּקֹ֖ום אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־לֹ֥ו הָאֱ-לֹהִֽים׃. On the third day of the journey, Avraham sees the makom from afar. וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּקֹ֖ום מֵרָחֹֽק׃

He came to that makom וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ אֶֽל־הַמָּקֹום֮ and prepared to bind Yitzkak to the altar. But, as we know, a divine messenger intervened and a ram, suddenly seen, replaced the beloved son. Avraham then names that makom וַיִּקְרָ֧א אַבְרָהָ֛ם שֵֽׁם־הַמָּקֹ֥ום הַה֖וּא ה יִרְאֶ֑ה  for that was where God saw Avraham’s commitment.

The significance of one special Makom grows. It becomes identified with where Yaakov encountered the makom — וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּקֹ֜ום and placed stones under his head to sleep and dreamed of a ladder that bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  As he awoke, Yaakov says, אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי. Truly, the Eternal was in this makom and I, I didn’t know. How awesome is this makom, מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה. This is the gate of heaven.

During the wandering in Wilderness, the Mishkan Tent travelled with the people. Yet, as the people prepare to enter the Land of Promise, they are told to restrict their worship to one location.כי אם־אל־המקום אשר־יבחר יהוה אלהיכם. That makom will become the place of pilgrimage. Look only to the place that the Eternal your God will choose from among all your tribes to establish His name there. Only there you are to go, to seek the Divine.

Eventually, that Makom becomes identified with Jerusalem and with the Holy of Holies. Avraham’s makom, about which we read on Rosh Hashanah, becomes the sacred site for the ritual which will be at the centre of Yom Kippur.

Approximately 2500 years ago, in 586 BCE, our people faced the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem and exile from Judea. They were dislocated, dispirited, disheartened, and dismayed. Because ancient people associated divinity with territory, because worship had been centralised in the Holy Place, the Mikdash in Jerusalem, they imagined that all was lost.

2500 years ago, by the waters of Babylon, the people sat, sat and wept, as they thought of Zion. איך נשיר את־שיר־ה על אדמת נכר How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil? אם־אשכחך ירושלם תשכח ימיני If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.  Three great prophets — Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, held out hope to the exiles. Their theological revolution was that God was everywhere, not limited to a place. The sovereignty of the Divine extended to all of Creation and all nations.

Isaiah spoke in glorious terms about the future return to Jerusalem. Jeremiah also envisioned a return. Ezekiel, living in Babylonia, imagined the dry bones coming together, hoped for the restoration of the Temple, prayed for a renewal of life for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. But Ezekiel added something new. He believed that the people could find God even by the rivers and canals of Babylon. “Thus said the Eternal God: I have indeed placed the Jewish people far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries, ואהי להם למקדש מעט בארצות אשר־באו שם but I shall become for them a small sanctuary in the countries where they have gone.”

There, near the Tigris and Euphrates, the small sanctuary was born. Ezekiel said that what truly matters is not lost. You haven’t lost everything. You have lost a place, but you have another place. The synagogue was born out of catastrophe and crisis and it saved Judaism.

Still later, after the destruction of the Second Temple, our Sages began to refer to the Holy One as Makom, the One whose place is everywhere. When we welcome mourners on Friday night or take leave from a shivah home we say: May Hamakom, the One whose place is everywhere, be with you in your sorrow to bring you comfort and consolation.”

We have lost so much. We so much want to be with family and friends. We so much want to be in our kehillah, together, singing the prayers and opening our hearts.  But that is not possible.

Our ancestors felt that they had lost their way, yet they constructed new places and found God present in every place.  As the Zohar put it, לית אתר פנוי מיניה, There is no place devoid of God.

In the midst of this Coronavirus, we are called to construct a mikdash me’at, to make our home sacred into a sacred place. We are called to remember what we still have, to be grateful for what remains, and to create a facsimile of the synagogue in our homes.

in many synagogues, above the Holy Ark, you may have seen these words: “שיוויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד” . I set the Eternal before me at all times. Now we need to place those words in our kitchens, our dens, our living rooms, to make our makom into a holy place. Use zoom and other on-line virtual reality to bring awareness of the divine into our homes.

Well before the coronavirus, in the late 1800s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote these words: “If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home.”

Rabbi Hirsch was on to something. Synagogues are ideal places for Jewish gatherings, communal prayer, and life-cycle celebrations. The home is the makom for the most profound influences any of us will ever know. Take Torah from the Ark and put it into your living room!

You can draw upon the strength of virtual communities and congregations to add spiritual strength to your lives, to turn your kitchen or den, living room or bedroom into a sacred makom. Without a synagogue to go to, many of us are studying and praying on our digital devices. We are turning our displacement into a new makom for family and personal growth.

In many communities, such as Toronto, a mitzvah corps of volunteers will sound shofar in balconies, parks and parking lots on Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The sounds of this “prayer without words” will reverberate through the air and enter your souls.

A Hasidic rabbi was once asked: Where is God? He responded: Wherever you let the divine in. As you sit in your home, as you look at this screen, remember the words of Yakov our ancestor: אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃.  Truly, the Eternal was in this makom and I, I didn’t know. How awesome is this makom, מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה.

Your makom is the gate of heaven.

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, after having served for 26 years as the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch previously served Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University, and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.
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