Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hallowed Spaces - Reflections on Parashat VaYera 5774

Nestled among all the drama of (literally) Biblical proportions in this week's parasha - the destruction of Sodom & Amorah; the birth of the miracle baby, Isaac; the expulsion of Hagar & Yishmael; and the Binding of Isaac - there is a remarkable verse that is quite easy to overlook. I refer to Genesis 19:27 - "And Abraham awoke early in the morning, and went to the place where he stood before Gcd."

Why does the Torah even bother to note this seemingly insignificant fact? Check out this gemara: "Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: the Gcd of Abraham will help a person who establishes for himself a fixed place of prayer; furthermore, it will be said of them when they die, 'what a humble person! what a pious person! what a student of Abraham!' And how do we know that Abraham fixed for himself a special place of prayer? For the verse states: "And Abraham awoke early in the morning, and went to the place where he [had previously] stood before Gcd." [BT Berachot 6B]

The trigger word here is "amad", stood/stand, which is the name of our central prayer, the Amidah, which is recited while standing silently. By this we infer that Abraham established for himself a special place to render this special prayer.

But why should this be the case? We Jews understand and are very good at sanctifying time - we have this weekly gig called Shabbat, when we unplug our iPhones, tablets, and televisions to plug in with the A-lmighty; to commune with Gcd and focus on our families. So far, so good But the notion of sacred space is a little foreign to the Jewish mind, especially in an age when we don't have the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). Why should the living room floor be qualitatively different than a pew in the synagogue? or driving in the car? or sitting on the beach? After all, the verse says, "Holy is the Lcrd of Hosts, His Glory fills the entire world."

Rav Kook explains the need to sanctify both time AND place. He wrote that prayer is not a sterile intellectual exercise. The spirit and the emotions must also be marshaled in the service of Gcd. Therefore, any environment that provides emotional and spiritual inspiration to match the intellectual fervor of the pray-er can be a sacred space. As the verse states, "And you shall love Hashem your Gcd with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your energy." Intellectual. Emotional. Spiritual. And what could be more inspirational than a place where prayers have been previously answered, like Abraham's choice of place?

From this perspective, shul (synagogue) - where the Holy Torah Scrolls abide, where countless prayers, both individual and communal, have been answered - is a much better place to pray than, say, sitting naked in the lotus position on the living room floor. Good luck with that. (I mean just getting in the lotus position.)

Ask a mathematician if something exists, and he will examine the values in the x-coordinate, the y-coordinate, the z-coordinate, and the t-coordinate. If all four of those values are positive, then yes, that 'something' exists (or at least did exist). In other words, the 'something' must take up space in time, with the x-, y-, and z- coordinates indicating length, width and depth, and t- indicating time. See the pattern? The inter-connectedness of space and time.

Every time we make a brachah (benediction) we say these words: "Blessed are You Hashem, our Gcd, King of the Universe..." The Hebrew word for Universe (OLAM) has a double connotation. 'Olam' means place, like the world or the entire created universe; but it also has a connotation of time, as in "l'olam va'ed" to mean eternity. Again - space and time combined. X-, Y-, Z-, & T. Existence itself. So perhaps a better way to understand the blessing is "Blessed are You Hashem, our Gcd, King of all Existence..."

This was Abraham's unique contribution to human thought - to first recognize, and then sanctify and unify both time AND space - very existence itself. And for us, as students of Abraham, we follow his example, binding together mind, heart & soul in prayer; and by doing that, we declare the Unity of the Creator. 

So come to shul! Anyway, that living room carpet is looking kind of grungy...

Shabbat Shalom.

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