Finding Our Place ~ Rosh Hashanah 5781
Sep 28th 2020

Rosh Hashanah 5781 ~ September 2020

Moshe locked himself out of his car on a hot day. As many of us did before electronic clickers, he managed to find a wire coat hanger and returned to the car to open the lock. This is a skill that older people probably remember.

As he wiggled the wire through the slightly open window, his wife Sadie began to tell him what to do."Moshe, move it more to the right... now more to the left... Higher! Lower!"

Finally, Sadie said, "What's taking you so long, Moshe?"

"Sadie, it's easy for you to say, sitting inside an air conditioned car!”

Where is Sadie? Sadie is in her place, yet disconnected from what is happening around her.

Many of us today are in our place, yet strangely not so.

Students in university, yet not able to fully enjoy being on campus. Children in school, yet in a classroom capsule. People at work, is meetings from their dining room table. A couple exercising, running the stairs of their apartment building. Grandparents at home, with grandchildren limited to being outside the house. There are older folk on their balconies, wondering when this will all end. Where is our place? Where do we really belong?

Our tradition teaches that makom, place, is important. When I was in university and later, doing research in the great libraries of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris or the Sifriyah Ha’le’umit in Jerusalem, I had my regular place. As I arranged my material, the setting put me at ease and enabled me to move into my studies.

A familiar space may give us comfort, link us to memories, enable us to sit with acquaintances, friends and family. I know where the Segals sit, as well as the Tanenbaums, Abellas, Libmans, Greenspans, Hermans, Sheffs, Gangbars and many others. Although you are in your place, in your home, although some of you can see me much better on the screen than from your usual seat in shul, you are not in your regular place, in your shul.

The Talmud in Brakhot (6a) teaches that we should pray in synagogue in a makom kavu’a, our usual spot, attributing this to Avraham who is associated with establishing the morning Shaẖarit service. In Genesis, we read that “And Avraham got up early in the morning …” The end of that verse teaches us about Avraham’s prayer and the concept of a makom kavu’a: “… to the place where he had stood before the Eternal.” (19:27)

When we are in mourning, we are instructed to move from our makom kavu’a, to experience in another way our profound loss, a sense of displacement. In a synagogue, if the mourner moves, he or she may, in turn, disrupt another person’s space, who may, subsequently disturb another’s space. In this way, when we grieve, our pain ripple through our community. Death puts us in a different place.

For the first time in recent memory, the vast majority of Jews will not be in their makom kavu’a for Yom Tov. Although we are not displacing others, we are grieving. We so much want to be in synagogue to celebrate, to reflect together on the year past and to ask for blessings for the year to come.

I believe that there is a wellspring of wisdom in our Torah tradition that can help us to navigate our spiritual displacement. I’d like to reflect a bit on the concept of makom that might lead us to a new place to celebrate and sanctify the New Year.

First, a reminder. Usually, I ask you to keep your cell phones off in shul. Today, please don’t drink your coffee or nosh leftovers during davening. Try to place yourself in a sacred space, a makom kadosh.

In Genesis, encounters between the Divine and human are often identified by a place name and by the term makom.

Avram proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, in that makom place … Avram invoked the Eternal by name. 13.3-4

.אל־מקום המזבח אשר־עשה שם…ויקרא שם אברם בשם ה

After the Revelation at Sinai, the people of Israel are instructed to build an earthen altar and are told,

בכל־המקום אשר אזכיר את־שמי אבוא אליך וברכתיך

in every makom place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.

But a competing tradition, focusing on one place, slowly began to gain significance. It begins in the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, when Avraham set out with Yitzhak for the place that God has told him.” וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּקֹ֖ום אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־לֹ֥ו הָאֱ-לֹהִֽים׃

On the third day of the journey, Avraham sees the makom place from afar.

וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּקֹ֖ום מֵרָחֹֽק׃

He came to that makom place וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ אֶֽל־הַמָּקֹום֮and prepared to bind Yitzkak to the altar. But, as we know, a divine messenger intervened and a ram, suddenly seen, replaced the beloved son. Avraham then names that makom place וַיִּקְרָ֧א אַבְרָהָ֛ם שֵֽׁם־הַמָּקֹ֥ום הַה֖וּא ה יִרְאֶ֑ה  for that was where God saw Avraham’s commitment.

The significance of one special makom grows. It becomes identified with where Yaakov encountered the makom place — וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּקֹ֜וםand placed stones under his head to sleep and dreamed of a ladder that bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  As he awoke, Yaakov says,

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃. 

Truly, the Eternal was in this makom place and I, I didn’t know. How awesome is this makom place, מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה. This is the gate of heaven.

During the wandering in Wilderness, the Mishkan Tent travelled with the people. Yet, as the people prepare to enter the Land of Promise, they are told to restrict their worship to one location

.כי אם־אל־המקום אשר־יבחר יהוה אלהיכם. That makom place will become the place of pilgrimage.”Look only to the place that the Eternal your God will choose from among all your tribes to establish His name there. Only there you are to go, to seek the Divine.”

Eventually, that makom becomes identified with Jerusalem and with the Holy of Holies. Avraham’s makom, about which we read today, becomes the sacred site for the ritual which will be at the centre of Yom Kippur.

Approximately 2500 years ago, in 586 BCE, our people faced the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem and exile from Judea. They were dislocated, dispirited, disheartened, and dismayed. Because ancient people associated divinity with territory, because worship had been centralized in the Holy Place, the Mikdash in Jerusalem, they imagined that all was lost.

2500 years ago, by the waters of Babylon, the people sat, sat and wept, as they thought of Zion.

איך נשיר את־שיר־ה על אדמת נכר

How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?

אם־אשכחך ירושלם תשכח ימיני

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;

Three great prophets—Second Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, held out hope to the exiles. Their theological revolution was that God was everywhere, not limited to a place. The sovereignty of the Divine extended to all of Creation and all nations.

Isaiah spoke in glorious terms about the future return to Jerusalem. Jeremiah also envisioned a return. Ezekiel, living in Babylonia, imagined the dry bones coming together, hoped for the restoration of the Temple, prayed for a renewal of life for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

But Ezekiel added something new. He believed that God’s place was everywhere and that the people could find God even by the rivers and canals of Babylon.

Thus said the Eternal GOD: I have indeed placed the Jewish people far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries,

ואהי להםלמקדש מעט בארצות אשר־באו שם

but I shall become for them a small sanctuary in the countries where they have gone.

There, near the Tigris and Euphrates, the small sanctuary was born. Ezekiel said that what truly matters is not lost. You haven’t lost everything. You have lost a place, but you have another place. The synagogue was born out of catastrophe and crisis and it saved Judaism.

Still later, after the destruction of the Second Temple, our Sages began to refer to the Holy One as makom, the One whose place is everywhere. When we welcome mourners on Friday night or take leave from a shivah home we say: May Hamakom, the One whose place is everywhere, be with you in your sorrow to bring you comfort and consolation.”

We have lost so much. We so much want to be with family and friends. We so much want to be in our shul, together, singing the prayers and opening our hearts.  But that is not possible.

Our ancestors felt that they had lost their way, yet they constructed a new place and made found God present in every place.  As the Zohar put it, “לית אתר פנוי מיניה" There is no place devoid of God. (תיקוניזוהר קכב, ב).

In the midst of this Coronavirus, we are called to construct a mikdash me’at,  to make our home sacred into a sacred place. We are called to remember what we still have, to be grateful for what remains, and to create a facsimile of the synagogue in our homes.

in many synagogues, above the Holy Ark, you may have seen these words: "שיוויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד" . I set the Eternal before me at all times. Now we need to place those words in our kitchens, our dens, our living rooms, to make our makom into a holy place. Use zoom and other on-line virtual reality to bring awareness of the divine into our homes.

Well before the coronavirus, in the late 1800s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote these chilling words:

“If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them—to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. (“Introduction by Translator” to Horeb, “The Classification of the Mitzvoth,” p.xix)

Beth Tzedec is still here to help, assist and support you. We offer you prayer, study, Soul Brew, support groups, kiddush club, story-time and family programs. You can draw upon our strength to add spiritual strength to your lives. We will assist you to turn your kitchen or den, living room or bedroom into a sacred makom.

Rabbi Hirsch was on to something. For too long the synagogue replaced the home in its centrality to Jewish life. Synagogues are ideal places for Jewish gatherings, communal prayer, and life-cycle celebrations. The home is the makom for the most profound influences any of us will ever know. Take Torah from the Ark and put it into your living rooms and offices!

Without a synagogue to go to, many of us are doing just that. Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat is being live-streamed onto big screens, and families are praying together on their sofas. There has been a boom of Zoom learning on our digital devices. We can turn our displacement into a new makom for family and personal growth.

During these days, we also offer you the opportunity, as an individual or family, to schedule a time to come into the sanctuary, to stand alone or with others before the Aron Kodesh, to be in this makom, and to offer your personal prayers of hope, for well-being, of gratitude.

And we will be in the streets and parks of Toronto, along with other synagogues, to sound shofar on Sunday afternoon, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. We will bring this mitzvah to you. The sounds of this “prayer without words” can echo through Toronto and enter your souls. 

A Hasidic rabbi was once asked: Where is God? He responded: Wherever you let the divine in.

As you sit in your home, as you look at this screen, remember the words of Yakov our ancestor:

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּקֹ֖ום הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃. 

Truly, the Eternal was in this makom place and I, I didn’t know.

How awesome is this makom place, מַה־נֹּורָ֖א הַמָּקֹ֣ום הַזֶּ֑ה.

Your makom is the gate of heaven.