THERE'S A PLACE PLACE FOR US
Rabbi David Walk
In real estate we always say that the three most important factors are location, location and location. Surprisingly, that might be true in the religious realm as well. When we look at the unending warfare in the Middle East, the importance of location makes its most deadly appearance. The primacy of Jerusalem to the three major monotheistic religions has made control of the Holy Land the most common causus belli in history. The irony that the City of Peace has been at the center of more wars than any other site on the planet is not lost on us. How can so many people die and suffer in the name of a God we all claim to be loving and compassionate? Please, don't expect answers to those daunting questions in this week's effort, but we can attempt to understand why geography is so important to Judaism. And this week's Torah reading is about the best place to begin that investigation.
Our parsha deals with the building of the Mishkan or portable Temple which accompanied the Jews in their forty year trek through the wilderness. The name, Mishkan, comes from God's command to build this edifice: Make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell in your midst (Exodus 25:8). The root of the Hebrew word for 'dwell' is shachen, which also give us the Hebrew word for neighborhood, shechuna. And the Temple is a great neighborhood to be in. It seems that the major lesson from this exercise in sacred architecture is that certain places are more important than others.
My youngest son is learning at Yeshivat Otniel. This outstanding hesder yeshiva is headed by a great scholar and original thinker named Rav Re'em HaCohen. He wrote a fascinating pamphlet called Makom or Place. In this short treatise he strongly avers that the concept of place or holy space is an essential concept in Judaism. The Rosh Yeshiva explains that the core idea in the book of Genesis is that humanity has lost its way from where it belongs. The story of Adam and Eve being thrust out from the Garden of Eden expresses this idea and so does the dispersion of mankind after the debacle of the Tower of Babel. Even more important to the Jewish nation is that the basic covenant with Avraham demands that we will be strangers in a land which is not ours before we can find our way back to the Holy Land designated by God. On the other hand, the redemption described in the book of Exodus is about getting back to where we truly belong. The rest of the Five Books of Moses is about going home, and that homeward journey begins with the building of the Mishkan and the concentric circles of sanctity which emanate from it.
This national reality which will keep Israel and Jerusalem at the focus of our religion has a corresponding idea for the individual. When the miraculous manna is introduced we are told not to collect it on Shabbat. The language there is that one should not leave their place on Shabbat. In other words we may wander and meander during the six days of work, but on Shabbat we must establish where we need to be. According to Rav Re'em all the detailed rules of carrying in different domains on Shabbat reinforce this idea. Ultimately the most important question ever asked is the one God asks Adam, 'Where are you?' We should ask that of ourselves at regular intervals.
At the other end of the philosophic spectrum is the position of Reb Meir Simcha of Dvinsk which is found in his great commentary on Chumash called Meshech Chachma (perhaps best translated as The Extent of Wisdom), written in the early twentieth century. He wrote that the basis for the sanctity of holy sites is not rooted in religion or heaven, but rather in our history and national memory. Reb Meir Simcha goes on to explain that one should not imagine that the Temple is holy in and of itself. God dwells among the Jewish people, but if they violate the covenant then these places become profane. This is in keeping with an idea stated by Reb Chayim Volozhin in his Nefesh Hachayim. The Babylonians and Romans could only destroy the physical entity of the Temple because God's presence had already flown the coop. This may also explain why the Torah never specifies the locations where the cultic centers would be established because the locations weren't inevitable, but rather the result of God's confirmation of actions taken by the mortals who led our nation.
So, which is it? Are our holy sites ordained so by God or are they traditional sites resulting from our ancestors' experiences? Is the Kotel holy because it once supported God's chosen home on earth or because millions of Jews have sanctified it with their prayers and tears. Is holiness a Divine reality or some sort of metaphor suggesting a connection to God? To all of the above, I respond, 'I dunno!'
I'm actually writing this article while riding on a bus between Tel Aviv and Haifa. There is a palpable tug on my spirit emanating from the land, but I don't know its source, Divine or historic. I love this land and was willing to die defending it when I served in the IDF. However, what would the sacrifice be for? Emotionally I lean toward Rav Re'em, but intellectually I feel drawn to Reb Meir Simcha. In 1967 immediately after the Six Day War Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik said that he couldn't celebrate because of the six hundred young men who died in the war. And he added that the stones of the Kotel weren't worth their blood.
In the final analysis I believe that we are willing to pay the ultimate price for the people, not for the land. We fight for the Jewish nation and not for real estate. This beautiful, amazing country is so wonderful because it affords God's people the possibility of survival. This is the place for us, because with God's blessing it's our safest haven.