Michael S. Friedman | February 24, 2012
Parashat T’rumah, which we read this week, asks us what makes a place holy. In the opening lines of the parashah, we read about the building of the Mishkan or the Tabernacle or the tent that we, the Jewish people, carried through the desert for forty years and that’s where we worshipped God and it says in the eighth verse of the Torah portion, “Ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham.” “Make me literally a makom kadosh, a holy place, and that’s where I,” God says, “will dwell among you.” But it doesn’t say exactly what qualifies as a holy place.
Many of us consider this space a holy place. What makes it that for us? Is it the Torah scrolls in our Ark? Is it holy because of the days that we’ve sat here together with friends, with those who are dearest to us, on Shabbat and High Holidays and other occasions? Is it the fact that this might be the place where we got married? I know there are couples here who were married in this space, or who named their children in this space, or who became bar or bat mitzvah in this space, or even sadly, who mourned those they loved most dearly in this space. All of those things make this a holy place.
But this question of what in fact makes a holy place is something that I considered a lot over the past week as I was honored to travel with our confirmation class and some of our other high school students to Berlin for a few days. And as we visited the sites around Berlin, especially of course the Jewish sites, this was a question that kept coming to my mind.
A synagogue long destroyed but then rebuilt that housed last Friday night a congregation of some, hundred-plus people. Some native Russian speakers, some native German speakers, some native English speakers, some native Hebrew speakers, all celebrating Shabbat together. Or the next day when we visited a synagogue built to seat two thousand individuals but for Shabbat morning it had maybe fifty? Or when we visited Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp outside of Berlin, a place obviously of great evil and great sadness. Or even I would say when we visited what remains of the Berlin wall, which is for so many of us not a Jewish site, but certainly an important site in the history of humanity in our lifetimes. A site that was important to me to visit.
There’s an aspect of holiness found in each of these places, but what exactly is it that makes it holy, I would ask again. Well a clue is found in this week’s Torah portion because in the lines leading up to this particular verse that says “Make me a holy place and I will dwell there,” we hear how the place is made. That place is made by each of us bringing gifts, bringing voluntary offerings, and it names some of them: yarn, silver, gold threads, crimson fabric, wood, poles, gold, and other jewelry.
But I would like to think that it’s not the objects that we bring that make a place holy. It’s what we bring of ourselves. Because the Torah also asks us not just to bring things, but to bring what we are moved by. Bring what moves us. And that’s what will make this little tent that we carried through the desert so holy.
So on the one hand, a place has to in order to be holy, elicit something, has to draw something out from us, something that we couldn’t find elsewhere. We know that when we walk into this space, something happens inside us that makes us say, “Yes, this is a holy place.” And we also know that when we walk into a rebuilt synagogue in Berlin or even a concentration camp, something is drawn out of us, something that we don’t normally feel day-to-day. But we have to give also in that place to make it holy. We have to be open to the experience. We have to certainly give it our attention and give it our intention. But we also have to give it our gifts of our heart and our spirit to that place.
A holy place is a place where you’ve left something of yourself. That’s what it makes it sacred. And that, I would hope, is what allows God to dwell there.
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