A view from the pew
Holy time, holy space
I am writing this column on April 16. Last night, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris caught fire and was significantly damaged. Christian Holy Week services could not take place is this iconic house of worship, as they have for more than 800 years. The loss, evident to the masses of people who came to mourn and to pray as the fire blazed and consumed a large portion of the grand architectural monument, was an expression of the loss of holy space.
This year, Christianity’s holy week coincided with the week when Jews are busy — some, myself included, actually obsessed — with the minute and exacting rituals of preparation for Passover. These rituals are the means through which Jews transform our homes from ordinary mundane space into holy space. The seder is the central event of Passover. Unlike every other holy moment on our Jewish calendar, which all are synagogue-centered, ever since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, some 1951 years ago, the Passover seder has been home-centered. Conversely, Christian Holy Week is church-centered, and Good Friday and especially Easter morning services, are the most attended church services of the year.
The sadness that I felt hearing about the destruction of Notre-Dame as I was preparing my home for Passover made me think about how holy space and holy time impact me. This week we will commemorate and mourn the destruction of six million Jews and thousands of their holy places. One week later, we will celebrate the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty on the 71st anniversary of the declaration of independence of the state of Israel. Both are holy days that have been added to the Jewish liturgical calendar in my lifetime.
What is it that makes a time or a place holy? Judaism teaches us that it is the act of separation. Kadosh and its derivatives, such as kiddush and kaddish, have a linguistic connection to an ancient Ugaritic word KDSH, which means separation. Time and place, like human relationships, become holy when we separate them from both the mundane and the profane.
When I stood at the cemetery in Cleveland last month as we buried my mother, I felt that the ground was kadosh — holy — even though intellectually I know that it’s just a piece of land, and theologically I believe that my mother’s soul is not buried there with her body. Yet for me , and I know for most other people, a cemetery is a makom kadosh. A holy place. Even destroyed cemeteries, as well as destroyed synagogues and other peoples’ houses of worship, for me are kadosh, holy and separate, from other, mundane places and pieces of land. What my mother’s death has reconfirmed for me is the lesson I learned 53 years ago when my dad died and 18 years ago when I lost my brother — that there is an amazing sense of God’s presence that I find in praying with a minyan, wherever my life’s journey takes me.
Unlike my year of kaddish for my dad or my brother, when I found myself in a familiar geographic and social space, in these first two months I have been traveling to many places. Finding a minyan wherever I have gone has brought me comfort and pride in the power of Jewish community to say Hineni to a Jew in need.
Passover, and especially the seder, reminds me that real kedusha, real holiness, is not space- or time-bound, but instead manifest in the world when you and I make time to separate ourselves from the mundaneness of everyday life and transform what ever place we find ourselves into a mikdash, a sanctuary, where we can make room in our lives to welcome God into our midst, and to see the image of God within ourselves and simultaneously in both our brothers and sisters, and in the others around us.
Our Passover seder table this year was filled with family, friends, and some new people whom I met for the first time. At my children’s suggestion we used a new Haggadah, but we also included family traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, including our family custom of filling the cup of Elijah with wine and grape juice from the cups of everyone at our seder table. It’s a ritual manifestation of my belief that Elijah, whose name is an acronym for the phrase Adonai Hu Ha Elohim; Adonai is The God, will come only to announce the coming of the Messiah, when we all contribute to making the world ready for redemption.
I believe that God does not dwell in any specific place. I believe in the salience and eternality of the message of our patriarch Jacob, who, upon waking from his first dream, where he envisioned a ladder upon which God’s messengers were ascending and descending, said that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)
I believe we each can find God anywhere and everywhere. Yes, there is an awe-filled sense of sanctity when you enter a grand house of worship such as the Cathedral of Norte-Dame, or a remnant of our destroyed sanctuary, such as the Kotel. I also feel an awesome sense of God’s presence when I pray in a rebuilt synagogue in Berlin, or an old synagogue in a small American town, or in a magnificent modern sanctuary in a thriving American Jewish community, or in a sanctuary at a Jewish camp set outdoors in the woods , or at a prayer service on the seashore of the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, or participating in a minyan in a private home. I believe that we each can find God and be found by God when we truly seek out the divine through study prayer and deeds of kindness wherever we are physically, if we metaphysically open ourselves to the opportunity. Moreover, we can channel God’s presence for others and for ourselves by being God’s voice and hands in the world.
Our Jewish calendar always has us on the move. As we move from the month of Nisan to Iyar, counting the Omer, we are journeying from the liberation of Passover toward the revelation of Shavuot. As we continue our journey these next weeks, we will pause to remember both the depths of despair of the Holocaust and the height of exhilaration of the creation of the the state of Israel. To paraphrase our patriarch Jacob, I believe that God, who is ever present, was in both places.
During the kingdom of night, evil people chose to act against the will of God, and good people chose to hide themselves and stand passive . Having been created with free will, each of us has the continual ability to choose to speak out or be silent; to be God’s active partner in tikun olam or passively watch our society and planet self-destruct as we gratify our selfish desires.
As the people of France go forward in rebuilding their great Cathedral of Notre-Dame, I pray they will use it as place from which they are inspired to be passionate in their compassion for others. As we celebrate the 71st anniversary of Israel, let us pray to God for the strength to be God’s partners. In the words of the prayer for the State of Israel, in spreading a shelter of peace under which Israel, like its ancestors Jacob and Esau, and its neighbors can learn to dwell as neighbors in peace.