Many of us likely have stories about the interesting and out-of-the-way spots where we have engaged in prayer. I remember participating in a mincha service with fellow Ramah Berkshires staffers outside the movie theater in Binghamton. There was the small storefront Masorti synagogue in Nice on the southern coast of France. There was the time I recited mincha up on Karnei Hittim, outside of Tiberias, as I looked across toward the hills and Tzfat, both covered lightly by clouds.
Closer to home, we pulled together a minyan in an apartment overlooking the Jersey shore. When we gather for prayer or perform a mitzvah somewhere, that place takes on an additional holiness. Our actions transform the spaces we inhabit. Re’eh reinforces for us the importance and holiness of space and place in Jewish thinking and practice as we see that the word makom, “place,” appears at least 18 times within parshat Re’eh.
This week’s Torah portion focuses our attention on Jerusalem, the holy city to which we are to bring our sacrificial offerings. Although the Torah teaches that we may slaughter meat for food within our “gates” (Deut. 12:15), we must bring offerings, both food and animal, to the holy place in Jerusalem. It is holy because God chooses to “cause God’s Name to dwell there” (Deut. 12:11). That God chooses to cause God’s Name to have its earthly presence in Jerusalem transforms that city into a beacon of holiness. This parasha focuses attention to one point in space, as the people also make pilgrimage there for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Deut. 16:16). Reflecting the One Who Calls Forth Mitzvot by performing such transformative acts, when individuals are called forth as a holy people to congregate in practice and thought in Jerusalem, Jerusalem becomes imbued with additional holiness. By human touch and thought, which includes prayer, people can act as conduits between that which is holy — God —and the world, making the Abstract One concrete.
Traditional Judaism provides a path to follow that runs through the locations where prayer occurs. If praying on an ordinary sidewalk, prayer can change the way we perceive that sidewalk, from the ordinary to an extraordinary place, where we connect to things divine and to the Eternal. Tefillot can enable those who pray to slow down on the path that runs through a specific place of prayer, enabling perception that the path and destination may be one. Praying by oneself, among family and community, enables perception of connectedness, including wholeness or completeness within oneself, nearness to or connection with God, and connection with one’s family and community. In addition, to discuss the words of Torah — such as in a d’var — enhances the experience of hearing those words and provides additional value. In the Torah, we read about how places receive names through encounters with God that happened in those places, as in the aftermath of the Akedah when Abraham calls the site Adonai Yireh, “God sees.” While today we do not have the luxury of giving official names to places on our own, we may be able to spiritually rename a site by recalling the experience of holiness we had there.
My thoughts turn to the recent visit of cantors to Poland, during which they gathered for a minyan at Auschwitz. While I imagined that the experience of praying there would be very moving, a poignant discussion with a participant confirmed my thoughts. I also wondered about such a place as Auschwitz, or any place where humans caused great suffering to other humans. Is it possible to transform it or add holiness? Auschwitz has a special significance for Jews, but was a place of suffering for individuals of many faiths. It persists for all as a symbol of the consequences of hatred.
While the parasha provides some answers, I place this question before the community for personal consideration. While not specifically a Jewish issue, I have a strong suspicion that this question — dealing with uncertainty as to whether in some fashion we, as a nation, could or should attempt to redeem such a place — was at the heart of disagreement over proposed designs for the World Trade Center site/memorial.
While we cannot change what happened in certain places, as Jews our parasha teaches that we have the power to provide some level of redemption to such places and can rededicate them. Our prayers and mitzvot can change places of darkness into reminders, although tragic, of our need to infuse more light, shalom, and divinity into all places, whatever their history.
May we have the perception, will, spirit, and strength to bring holiness and redemption more and more into the world, along with the presence of God — known as Hamakom, The Place — in order to transform makom — each and any given place — into one that reflects the presence of Hamakom.