B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Holy ground

Of the many words we use to refer to HaShem, my favorite is Makom,”place.” Though each of us can relate to God by different names at different moments, the concept of God as a destination resonates with me more often than the various personifications. Visualizing prayer as a trip to God tends to inspire in me the spiritual work it takes to make the journey.

It is now bring to a close our long trek to HaMakom, a place we strive to reach–through t’shuva, tfilla, and tzedakah–before the heavenly gates close at sundown after Yom Kippur.  “T’shuva,” a word best (but not fully) translated as a combination of “return” and “repentance,” most directly evokes this spatial imagery–to what space are we meant to “return”?

We may think of t’shuva as the painstaking and painful  process of trudging through the mud of our transgressions to reveal the divinity beneath it.  We dig deep, identify where we miss the mark, repair bonds with those we have wronged, plant seeds of aspiration in hopes that they will flourish next year.  This place is “the land of our Soul,” as Shlomo Carlebach wrote:

Return again, return again
Return to the land of your Soul
Return again, return again
Return to the land of your Soul

Return to what you are, return to who you are
Return to where you are
Born and reborn again

Spiritual dimensions notwithstanding, our bodies and our earth impose certain limitations on this “land of our Soul”–but the road stretches out before us no less in the physical realm.  Our tradition in fact insists that the journey to HaMakom begins with the mundane.  We wear head coverings.  We refrain from eating certain foods.  Space and time converge as we move through nights, days, and seasons.  We rest every Shabbat.  We build temporary structures and live in them.  We remove every trace of chametz from our homes.

Recently, almost by accident, I put on a headscarf.  I was rushing out the door to sing and play for a service; I had a vicious cold and barely any voice remaining.  I was wearing a shirt with a clasp that kept catching the hair on the back of my neck, which was irritating and uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to change clothes. For some reason, I grabbed a scarf from my closet and tied it around my head.  I’d never done this before and it made me look quite different–frum, hippie, or somewhere in between. But I also felt different.  While not drastic, taking this small physical action on my appearance had the effect of at once humbling and elevating, cracking open a door to a perspective just a tiny bit distinct from the one I’d been on moments earlier.

I am reminded of Woody Guthrie lyrics, portraying the opposite action (taking something off as opposed to putting it on), on a path to the same place:

Take off, take off your shoes
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
Take off, take off your shoes
The spot you’re standing, its holy ground

These words I heard in my burning bush
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
I heard my fiery voice speak to me
This spot you’re standing, it’s holy ground

That spot is holy holy ground
That place you stand it’s holy ground
This place you tread, it’s holy ground
God made this place his holy ground

As I acknowledged previously, creating and maintaining sacred spaces is not my forte.  I tend to spend resources elsewhere, leaving rooms cluttered, never spending any time on hair or makeup, eating whatever it occurs to me to crave in the moment.  Continuing my Elul analogy, could we do a better job of maintaining the soul’s sacredness by treating physical spaces as holy ground?

There are less than a handful of days left before Yom Kippur, and to fully “return” to the land of our Soul may yet elude us as the flawed humans we are.  Even if we are on the right side of the gates as they close, our journey toward God continues.  With our souls wiped as clean as we can muster, let us enter new spaces this year–whether physical or otherwise–and make them just a little more sacred before we leave, on our perpetual venture of returning to the land of our Souls.


About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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