Making Places Holy – VaYetze 5782

D'var Torah | Genesis

For days, weeks, and months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, mourners, social activists, and concerned citizens flocked to the site where he was choked for an agonizing eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The street where George Floyd was lying under the knee of a police officer has become a shrine. Hundreds of people have left flowers and other mementos. Others come to say a prayer or stand in silent reflection. In effect, a previously unmemorable, ordinary, local street has become a shrine. That simple spaces can become holy places is rooted in the Torah.


Jacob awakes from his momentous dream of angels descending and ascending a ladder rooted in the earth but stretching upward to heaven with the realization (Gen. 28: 17): “How awesome is this place.” The place, of course, was some nondescript wilderness where a rock served as his pillow. Moses, in contrast with Jacob, is attracted to a mysterious location where he spots a bush afire but sustaining no damage. When he reaches the location of this strange phenomenon he is told by God: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). The difference is stark: God informs Moses of the special status of the ground on which he stands. Jacob needed no such information. He came to that knowledge on his own.


The realization that some spaces can become holy places is critical, especially in the absence of a Temple in Jerusalem. The loss of the temple could have resulted in the extinction of Judaism but did not. Among the reasons for Judaism’s persistence is the way in which the rabbis engineered alternatives to Temple rituals. Prayer became a substitute for sacrifices. And dining tables became a substitute for the altar. In this case, the rabbis imagined that the place where Jews eat could be a holy place. Diners would wash as the priests did before eating their sacrificial meals. Salt would be applied to bread as salt was applied to Temple offerings. And words of Torah would be shared during mealtime. Transforming the location where our bodies were nourished to a place where our souls could be nourished and our memories sanctified was essential to the perpetuation of Judaism. Ordinary spaces can indeed become holy places.


In fact, one of the possibilities all people can exploit is making the ordinary extraordinary; making ordinary spaces into holy places by imbuing them with value and purpose.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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