A PLACE TO CALL MY OWN
Rabbi David Walk
It's rather ironic that in many shuls people use the concept of makom kavua, 'a set place' for davening as an excuse for being rude to guests. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that the custom originates with Avraham Avinu, whose life was dedicated to hospitality. What a shame that some use Avraham's idea to make guests feel uncomfortable. Plus, there's a misunderstanding of the rule. It's clear from the halachic sources that the concept of makom kavua isn't a chair or seat. It's an area, and that area is defined as daled amot or about 2 meters (for the American hold outs against the sanity of the Metric System, that's almost 7 feet) in every direction. So that, one is maintaining this custom even by sitting a chair or two away from the normal seat. If your shul has those compartments at the seat with your tallit or siddur in it then just politely ask if you can get your possession. One of these days I'm going to fight back when asked to move from someone's makom kavua, but until that day I just meekly move away.
But what is the source of this precept? Why, our parsha, of course. In a powerful passage, God informs Avraham of the imminent demise of Sodom. Then Avraham begins a moving negotiation for their lives. Avraham goes home to await developments. Then the verse informs us, 'And Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord (Genesis 19:27).' Based on this the Talmud concludes: Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: Whoever designates a permanent place for his prayer - the God of Avraham assists him. And when he dies, it is said of him, 'Woe, such a humble person; woe, such a pious person, among the students of Avraham Avinu (Berachot 6b).' Wow, want God to assist you, and heaven to mourn your death? Then pray in the same place all the time. Really? I never thought it could so easy. Be that as it may, actually, the commentaries debate the exact requirements of this rule. Some say the same synagogue may be enough, and you only need the exact location when praying in your home. While others suggest our custom of having a specific area applies in the shul as well.
What does this accomplish? I think that it sets a sense of order and stability to our prayer and to the synagogue as well. I also believe that it's an aid to kavanah. What is kavanah? The real translation should be 'direction', as in target practice. L'chavein means to take aim. We do direct our prayers towards heaven through the site of the Temple. But the term implies intent, and, perhaps, concentration, as well. To me, true kavanah is akin to mindfulness. This requires a total immersion in the practice at hand, but this also includes awareness of my setting. A makom kavua aids mightily in that endeavor. I have my spatial parameters already calibrated. Now, I can put my mental and spiritual energy into the words, and their impact on me where I stand, both in my life and on that little plot of planet earth upon which my feet are planted. On those rare occasions, that I haven't made it to shul. I stand before a piece of artwork by my daughter, which boldly declares: Shiviti Hashem l'negdi tamid ('I hold tightly to God, always,' Psalms 16:8). It helps.
But I think that there's another idea lurking in the background of this concept, which can further enhance the tefilla experience. In his fascinating posthumously published work, The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik discusses the development of the Jewish nation. His main topic is the evolution of humanity's relationship with God, mostly through Avraham and Moshe. However, there's a minor point about the sanctity of Israel, which captivates me. We all know the traditional approach, most famously touted by Rav Yehudah Halevy: The Holy Land is metaphysically endowed with unique spiritual attributes by God from the time of Creation. The location has been crucial to the development of civilization (on the horizontal plane, it connects three continents; on the vertical, it connects heaven and earth); the very air changes one's outlook. The Rav demurs.
Rabbi Soloveitchik claims that he must eschew that approach for halachic reasons. He claims: Kedushah is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority…the sanctity of the land denotes the consequence of a human act…or the mere presence of he people in that land (p. 150). I don't know who's right; I'm not even worthy of a point of view. However, there's something very appealing about the Rav's approach. Living here, I feel so connected to the historical events which transpired on the soil I tread upon. I sense the history more than the echoes of the Big Bang.
But what about davening? I have, on occasion, prayed well. I recall instances of tears rolling down my cheeks and staining my siddur. My heart has cracked or soared periodically during my davening. Standing again in the same spot helps me reconnect with those occasions. For many years I prayed near the rabbi in my small shul back in Malden, Mass. I caught a tremp on the wing tails of his devoted davening. There are also practical considerations. Pick a place which is quiet or has good lighting. The space is important, and it eventually becomes part of me and my prayer.
Avraham went back to the place where he conversed with God, and prayed there again. He debated justice and ethics with his Creator on that very spot. He wanted to recreate those thoughts, inspiration and emotion. He yearned to renew that connection. Our adored ancestor believed that returning to that exact location could help him relive that exact experience. We follow his example, and hope for similar results.