What is the nature of sacred space?
Is it intrinsically holy? Or does it become holy because of the actions of people?
This week's Torah portion, Terumah, is about sacred space. The major spheres of holiness in Judaism are time — as in Shabbat and the holidays; deeds — doing various mitzvot (commandments); and place, especially the land of Israel and the Temple.
This week's reading, from the book of Exodus, is focused on the tabernacle — the portable sanctuary the people of Israel carried with them on their journey through the desert. It's sacred space, but portable sacred space, which is kind of an interesting concept. It's not that physical spot itself that's holy–it's what we do with the physical place. Which is in keeping with one of my favorite interpretations of my favorite verse in this week's Torah reading. The verse is "build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." The interpretation is that the sanctuary is a sanctuary in the heart, not in physical space. We make a dwelling place for God within our souls, not within our cities.
But there is definitely also an idea of intrinsically holy space — when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, God tells him to take off his shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy. And of course the Talmud discusses the Holy of Holies in the Temple as the holiest place, with holiness reducing in concentric circles going out from there. Or in increasing holiness you have the land of Israel, then Jerusalem, then the Temple, then the Holy of Holies.
But is it the physical space that's important? Or the fact that the space has been made sacred through the historical associations?
A lot of times I find it helpful to ask my kids. They often have a simple and direct perspective, which interestingly often mimics the arguments of great rabbis. I was certainly not disappointed when I asked about holy space.
I asked "Is the land of Israel holy in and of itself, or is it holy because of people and our history?" My 8 year old argued that it was holy because of the people — that if we didn't have a history with the land it wouldn't be anything special. My ten year old argued that there was something special about the land itself — God chose to give it to the Jews, but if He didn't, it still would have been a special place, God would have given it to someone else. But the fact that we have our history with the land makes it even more holy and special.
Those are much the same arguments that the rationalists and the mystics make. The mystics say the land is imbued with its own holiness, separate from any history. It's a place that's special to God. The rationalists say that the land is sacred because of the history we have with the land, the long relationship, etc., but intrinsically it's just land.
One thing I find a little ironic in a sad way is that those who say the land itself is holy are often radically right wing politically, and are willing to spill lots of blood to make sure the land stays in the hands of those they believe are worthy — which of course is what pollutes the land worse than anything else.
Either way, the land is of central importance in the Jewish faith. But how do we merit to live here? The Torah tells us that we merit to live in the land of Israel through obeying the commandments. But which commandments? There is no doubt in my mind that God gives the commandments "bein adam l'chavero," between people, precedence over the commandments "bein adam l'makom," between Man and God. What's more important, avoiding pork, or loving your neighbor? The prophets, like Isaiah give us the answer, when they quote God as saying "is this the fast I want? when you act pious, but defraud your neighbor?" Not that it's OK to eat pork, but it's clear what's more important. We also get the message of which takes precedence from Abraham: he breaks off a conversation with God to attend to some visitors, putting the needs of people first.
If we want to merit living in this holy land, we need to pay attention to how we treat others — and the Torah is quite explicit that this means not just Jews. There is a line in last week's Torah portion which says "do not oppress the stranger (ger)." Some people try to say that "ger" just means a Jew you don't know, or maybe a convert, but certainly not Gentiles. But that's clearly not the plain meaning of the verse — for the verse continues "for you were strangers (gerim) in Egypt." Clearly we weren't "converts" in Egypt — we were outsiders.
May all of us who have the great privilege of living in the holy land be ever vigilant to conduct ourselves toward our fellow Man in a way that enhances the holiness of the land, not in a way that pollutes the land!