Standing Present in the Moment 

After traveling for a few weeks, I have to say that it feels good to be home!

When I got home a couple of nights ago, our puppy, Bamba (yes, he’s named for the Israeli snack food) greeted me with such enthusiasm – his tail waving excitedly, his licks, and his not knowing if he should jump or sit since we are trying to train him not to jump on people  – all of these were just about the best greeting I could imagine. I could not help but stop and simply be present with him.

Dogs are like that.  

They are totally present.  

I love the scene in the movie UP with the talking dog who cannot help but be distracted by each squirrel he sees. Dogs are naturally, instinctively, in the moment. They are totally locked in.

We, people, sometimes need a bit of coaching or practice to be fully present in an experience. Distractions, modern life, technology, our thoughts and feelings, all combine to remove us from the moment we are in. We sometimes find our thoughts wandering, our critically and analytically dissecting minds taking us away. 

Like right now. 

What were you thinking about when I was just talking? 

Take a moment and notice. 

How does your body feel? 

What would it be like to notice, take a pause, and then return to the present moment?

Here, together, now.

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Parashat R’eih reminds us that we are presented with choices about how to act in any given moment. 

While a dog is not always able to choose how to behave since its instincts govern much of its behavior, we can – sometimes – do better.  We are invited to appreciate our choices and choose good.

Our Torah reading then offers us many opportunities to choose the moral, ethical or spiritual path by following its list of commandments, of mitzvot that the reading enumerates from kashrut – our dietary laws – to our yearly festivals.  

The awareness that comes from following these practices, and centering ourselves, allows us to move through life in a more intentional, deliberate manner. Our parashah speaks to that, utilizing an important phrase: V’halakhta el HaMakom – you shall go to the place.  

Second Temple of Jerusalem/Model in the Israel Museum (photo by Ariely, Aug. 1, 2008)

This phrase comes from the part of our reading that speaks about tithes – taking a tenth of our income and donating it to the Beit Hamikdash, to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – this was a way of supporting the community, a kind of early system of taxation that is also meant to sustain the people spiritually.  

The Torah describes the Beit Hamikdash – the Temple as HaMakom – you shall go to the place where God chooses to establish the Divine name.

In our Etz Hayim Humash, Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us that Makom is one of the names for God.  It is not merely “the place,” but the One who is in all Places. God is “the site of all reality. Thus, the verse can mean, ‘should the distance seem too great for you because God [HaMakom] is far from your heart.’”

We are reminded to let God into our hearts.  What might that mean? And what does this name for God mean here?

To answer that, let’s first examine the word: makom.  What does makom mean?  It means place.  So, God is the One who is all places and that makes sense.

But what about the root of the makom – where does it come from?

Well, etymologically, it comes from the word “kum,” meaning stand. 

So what does standing have to do with God?

To explore this connection, let’s think about when we use HaMakom as God’s name.  

When do we use it?

In a house of mourning and on Friday nights to welcome the mourners back into the community.  We ask HaMakom – the One who is in all places, including places of sadness and loss – to bring consolation to the mourners.  

Makom is the name for God that we use when we comfort mourners. 

I often invite others to stand at a shiva – a house of mourning – to say these words.  What does this symbolize?

What does it mean to stand for someone?

I think there are three aspects: respect, support and action.

First, respect, appreciation, which means that you care for someone, you are saying that you think they are important.  When you stand up for someone – it is a physical act that demonstrates our love or appreciation for another person.  

Think of a courtroom – we stand when the judge walks in.  Think of a wedding – we stand as the couple enters. We treat them with honor.  I remember how powerful it was to stand when one of my rabbinic teachers in my high school walked in the classroom each day to teach us.   

Second, it symbolizes support.  When you are standing, you are saying you are with someone.  

When children stand next to their parents who are saying kaddish, they are stating implicitly that they are supporting them during a difficult time.  

I think back to when my wife was in labor and I stood and she leaned on me. While she was enduring the intense sensations and pain, my standing afforded her some measure of support.

Third, when we stand, we are stating that we are ready to act. We are ready to help.  

Standing is that much closer to moving! And often that is what others need – someone who will help them in any way.  

And now, I would like to weave it all together: that’s what being present is all about.

HaMakom – the One who is present is modeling what we should do – to honor others, to support them and to act in helpful ways.

Standing means truly being in a place – respecting others, supporting others and ready to act to assist them.

The spiritual lesson is that being present in a moment in not merely a state of mind, a way of truly locking ourselves in a moment, but it is also about being being ready to act.

That is how HaMakom – the Presence wants us to live our lives.  

May we continue to find ways to stand and be present for each other. 

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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