David Lerner

Sacred Space and Time

A few months ago, I participated in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s annual rabbinic retreat in Southern California.

ijsSince this was before my illness, I was still running quite a bit and planned a long run through some of the hills, canyons and mountains of Simi Valley.

It was a perfect Californian afternoon in the mid 70s and I felt that I could fly up and down the hills. After a few miles, I found myself on a scenic overlook which enjoyed a commanding view of the valley. I had to stop and take it in. As I paused, two hikers walked by.

These two women seemed to be appreciating the surroundings, and I thought they were taking out their smartphones to take a picture of the vista.

But, as I watched them, I realized that they were just texting. In the midst of all this beauty and wonder, their eyes were glued to their screens. And here’s the thing – as I looked more carefully, I realized that they were actually texting each other. Standing in this sacred space, they were speaking through their phones.

* * *

Model of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem
Model of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem

This parashah is all about creating sacred space. Parashat Emor delineates numerous rules for the kohanim. But what was the purpose of all these rules? Why have kohanim, spiritual leaders performing rituals in the holy places like the Mishkan, the Desert Sanctuary, or later on in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? A la the wicked son at the seder, what’s the point of all this?

Well, these kohanim were transforming space so that they and all those present could feel God’s presence, so they could come close to the Ineffable.

The kohanim and their rites made space kadosh – holy, sacred. And that sanctity, that kedushah, brought the Children of Israel closer to sensing the divine.

Exterior, Temple Emunah, Lexington, MA
Exterior, Temple Emunah, Lexington, MA

Sometimes, that happens in the Sinai Desert, sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in Simi Valley and, sometimes, right here in Lexington.

The laws may need some revisions, but their core purpose is clear – to bring us close to God, to being present to the Mystery and Meaning that lies at the center of the universe.

* * *
Tishrei 5777But suddenly in the second half of the parashah, the Torah veers away from the legal rules of the kohanim and delves deeply into the laws of all the holidays, the hagim. For many years, I struggled with these two halves in this parashah: what on earth does the litany of kohanic regulations have to do with celebrating all of our hagim?

But, of course, they are one and the same. The kohanic system transformed space and the hagim, our sacred days, transform time.
Time and space made holy in one parashah. Brilliant.

Perhaps our ancestors already knew something deep about space and time. Perhaps those who divided up the parshiyot, the portions, knew that space and time are actually one – interwoven into a single continuum.

While it would take thousands of years more until another pretty astute Jew proved that space and time are in fact enmeshed, it seems that our Torah has a profound understanding about it as well.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

While the Torah does not explicitly state the theory of special relativity as Einstein did one hundred years ago, it does contain a deep truth about the nature of space time.

This takes place when Moshe encounters the Divine at the Burning Bush. In that most sublime moment, Moshe asks God what is Your name?

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, by Eugene Pluchart (1809-1880)
God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, by Eugene Pluchart (1809-1880)

God replies that Moshe should tell them: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. Tell them Ehyeh sent me to you.” (Ex. 3:14)

Translating this is no simple matter, but Ehyeh is from the verb “l’hiyot – to be.” God is telling Moshe that the Divine name is: “I will be” or “I will be what I will be.”

Meaning, that God is beyond time; God is “IS-ness,” being itself. God is existence. God is found throughout this four dimensional universe we inhabit. God is space-time.

In special relativity, the Minkowski spacetime is a four-dimensional manifold created by Hermann Minkowski.
In special relativity, the Minkowski spacetime is a four-dimensional manifold created by Hermann Minkowski.

To fully appreciate and/or understand this, let us break it down into theological steps. Before Judaism/ethical monotheism, people believed that idols had power. Then along comes Judaism and states, well, actually, there is one Power in the universe and even more perplexingly, this Power has no shape or form.

That God is beyond space was still a really difficult concept. For a thousand years, the Israelites repeatedly slip up and forget that God is beyond space, worshipping idols again and again.

In fact, it was Ezekiel – the same prophet we read in our haftarah today – who, 2,600 years ago, taught that God is not only in Jerusalem, God is everywhere. After the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE, Ezekiel explained that God is not found merely in the axis from heaven to earth anchored in Jerusalem, but, utilizing his vision of a throne with wings, he imagined that God was journeying with Israelites into exile. Therefore, God was not confined to one space, but found in all space.

But while Judaism pushed this notion of God’s presence in all spaces, the deeper magic is found in our sanctification of time. Just as we can transform space, we can transform time.

Time is where we can really sense God. Time is where we can truly sense our tradition’s power to help us sense God, the Mystery of the world. Becoming aware of time demands our full attention to a moment, to being present in that moment, to the oneness of that moment.

Customs House Clock Tower, Boston, MA (
Customs House Clock Tower, Boston, MA (

I heard a musician, a drummer. Moshe Kedem from Congregation Navah Tehilla in Jerusalem, speak this week about time. He explained that he spent lots of time studying time – the beat, the metronome, the splitting up of time. 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds to a minute – it is all perfectly regimented, mathematical formulae.

Waking Heart CD cover by Nava Tehila
Waking Heart CD cover by Nava Tehila

But then, he reminded us that it is all artificial. Time could be divided up differently and can be experienced very differently. He said: “Is one hour with your grandchildren the same as one hour with your boss? Is one hour in the dentist chair the same as one hour with your beloved?”

No, they are not. Because we experience them in distinctive ways.

The true genius of our tradition is realizing that we can create sacred time. That was the innovation of Shabbat, of separating one day out of every seven and creating holy time.

wood mosaic omer counter
Mosaic Omer Counter [Etz-Ron Wood Art by Amy Gilron: Wooden Judaica, Home Decor & Handmade Jewelry]

That was the idea of the Omer – of counting the seven weeks from Passover and the Exodus until Shavuot and the Revelation at Sinai. And here we are on day 28 – three weeks to go! The excitement is building!

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

But Shabbat is the pinnacle of the heightened awareness of time. It is the crown of all the hagim, of all the holidays.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presented the following metaphor: Shabbat is a cathedral in time. Imagine the grandeur of an enormous cathedral, its ceiling soaring toward the heavens and now apply that to time. That is Shabbat.

So how do we do that? First, let’s acknowledge that it is not easy. It is not. There are so many things to take us out of the Shabbat in our modern, fast-paced, constantly taking selfies and posting them on Instagram world we inhabit.instagram_logo

But maybe that’s where we should start. Give yourself one day without your phone. If that’s too much – try part of Shabbat for starters. But I mean a real break: no calls, no texts, no emails, no pictures. Turn it off. Just be present. Go on a hike and talk to the person next to you, no texting them!

No posting. No social media. I know this is hard. I like Facebook – people even said to me: “Rabbi, we knew you were feeling a little better when you starting to post on Facebook!” It’s true – to paraphrase Descartes, ‘I post, therefore, I am!” But enough, give it a rest for 25 hours.

Be totally present with yourself and those around you. See how that changes time. See how it can change your conversations, your relationships, your connection to God, yourself.

And let’s go even further, let’s try making other moments sacred during the week. I cannot tell you how many meetings I sit in when the participants are texting and looking at their phones during the conversation. I understand that our brains are being rewired to multitask on some level, but I also know the value of a real conversation, of really talking to someone. No distractions. Just the intensity and challenge of being truly present with another.

Last semester, I had to change my policy about cell phones in class.

photo of the iOS family pile 2002 by Blake Patterson from flickr
the iOS family pile 2002 by Blake Patterson from flickr

So, I took out my smartphone, turned it off (not to vibrate or mute, but actually off!) and had my students do the same. Then we piled them all in the middle of the table where they could not be touched during class. Now, don’t get me wrong – there are still other distractions for students in class, but I could eliminate at least that one.

That is my new meeting policy. Unless there is an emergency reason, please turn off your cell phone when you come into my office for a meeting and I will do the same for you.

Suddenly, now, we can look at each other without any device and experience each other’s presence. For that is exactly why Shabbat was created. All of its laws and intricacies assist us in experiencing time and each other on a different plane.

* * *
It might be easier to feel the sacredness of a moment in Simi Valley, in Jerusalem, or even here, in this magnificent space, but we should always remember that we can transform any space and, most powerfully, time itself.

We merely need to put away our distractions and notice where we are and where the others around us are. Then we can truly be present in space-time, in God’s sacred space-time, which is all that is.

screen shot from Temple Emunah video 5-18-16
screen shot from Temple Emunah video 5-18-16
About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.