Maya W's D'var Torah

My Torah portion is B'midbar, which means in the desert or wilderness. This portion takes place at the very beginning of the book of B’midbar, or – in English - Numbers. In B’midbar, the Israelites are trekking across the desert, led by Moses. They set up camp when they need to and disassemble it when they need to continue moving. When the Israelites were crossing the desert they created a beautiful, holy tent where they could worship Adonai during the trip. They called this space the mishkan, which means "dwelling place" in English. (It is often translated as "tabernacle.") They brought the mishkan from place to place across the desert; it had many parts so that when they had to move, they could take it apart and assemble it repeatedly. My portion describes how the people set up the mishkan and the role of the Levite tribe who will protect the holy sanctuary. The Torah describes the mishkan as a sort of tent draped with bright colorful fabric: purple, blue, and gold. It has an ark of gold inside, and there are beautiful animal skins covering the tables. There are many vases, cups, bowls, tongs, fire-pans, and other objects that are used during sacrifices. These all contribute to making the mishkan the first Jewish place for group worship; in a way, the first synagogue. Thinking about the mishkan raised a lot of questions for me about what holiness is and how places become holy:

  • What makes the mishkan a holy place?
  • What makes any place holy?
  • Usually synagogues are in a building. Can a traveling tent be holy? What about a place outside?
  • Are there different kinds of holy places?
  • And what makes a place holy in a Jewish way?

Personally, I think there are different kinds of holiness and different kinds of holy places. For example, almost everyone has a secret hideout where no one can find them, and that's like a sanctuary. This is one kind of holiness: you make a place holy because you're comfortable there, you make it your own space and you make it the way you want. You can relax, have peace and quiet or do whatever you want there. A tree isn't holy unless there is someone sitting in it, making it their sanctuary. A cupboard isn't holy until someone hides their toy soldiers in it and no one else finds them. I call this "individual holiness." But then there are public places that everyone enjoys as a sanctuary, like the Sheep Meadow in Prospect Park. The Sheep Meadow is a giant field where everyone has their own spot. That spot is holy for you, whenever you want to go there, and whatever you want to do. But when you leave the park, that spot becomes holy for someone else. If someone sits down in the spot where you and your friend were playing ball, it’s no longer your spot. It’s the new person's spot, their sanctuary. Then when you go back to that spot, it’s yours again. So we can all share holy places, make them communal, and not private. This is "group holiness." But these still aren't really Jewish holy places. To make a Jewish holy place, you have to have a group of Jews create the place together. If a Jew plants a tree in Jerusalem and after it grows there's a Jew sitting in it, it's not really a Jewish holy place because there's only one person finding it holy. If a Jew built a temple for herself and prayed in it, although it would be Jewish and holy, it would be a different kind of holiness from a temple put together by a group of Jews who gather there together to pray. Why do you need to have a group to make a Jewish holy place? I think it's because Judaism is very communal. You rarely see anyone in this temple praying completely alone during services. Even when we pray the silent prayer, we’re all here, together to support each other’s prayers. We sing, pray and join together as one holy, Jewish community. This is "Jewish holiness." We are experiencing Jewish holiness right now. When I first started going to Hebrew school it was by choice. I went to Beth Elohim with Emily Dinowitz after she had slept over at my house. My parents had said, “We’ll pick you up at snack time”. Snack time came and so did my parents. “I don’t want to leave,” I told my parents. I wanted to stay and be a part of the learning that was going on in the classroom. At Beth Elohim, the Hebrew school kids went to a service every day called tefilla. It was a time to pray and to learn the songs that were part of the regular service. I thought it was fun, and I didn’t want to leave. Even though I didn't know the kids at the Hebrew school, but they made me feel welcome and I enjoyed being part of a Jewish community, which I'd never been part of before. During this service, this morning, a similar thing is happening: we are becoming one community, even though we don’t all know each other. My relatives and friends don’t know the members of Kolot, and half the members are here for the service and don’t know me. But that doesn’t matter because we’re all here together making the service, not needing to know exactly who the other people here are, just knowing that we are part of a community for this morning, and welcoming each other. Kadosh means holy, but it also means separate, because separation is part of making things holy. Separation, togetherness and holiness are related in some very complicated ways. When you're coming together in a temple or inside any place, you're also separating yourself from people outside the building. And even though you're all inside together, you're feeling different things. I'm sure some people are crying as I make this speech, because they're proud, but then there are other people who just want to get back to the service. And then there's me, feeling nervous and excited. So even though we're all together during this service, everybody is still separate, thinking their own thoughts and feeling their own emotions, and saying their own prayers and having their own reasons for being here. To go back to my categories of holiness, shul is one of the places where individual holiness meets group holiness. For example, earlier during this service there was a prayer called the Amidah, when we all stood up to pray, and part of that prayer we did in silence or at least quiet. Even though we were all together, we were in our own worlds, focusing on our own thoughts. This is where that feeling of being alone in the Sheep Meadow meets the feeling of being together in shul. The service creates the same peaceful, spiritual feeling as the Sheep Meadow. When I first got my Torah portion, I wasn't sure what I could get out of it, because the story didn't seem very interesting or relevant to my life. But one day, when I was reading it over with my dad, we realized together that there actually was a connection between B’midbar and our lives: not necessarily the descriptions of counting cattle, or the part about Moses talking to God, but the part about building the mishkan. This is because the mishkan reminded me a lot of how Kolot Chayeinu runs. Our congregation, Kolot, is similar to the mishkan. The children of Israel put all their sacrificing utensils in the Mishkan, and went inside to pray and connect to God together. But because they put in the ark, and the bowls and ladles and special skins and cloths, and gathered there to worship, they made it "kadosh," they made it a Jewish holy place. In the same way, this church is a holy building, but it's not a Jewish holy place until we put up an ark, take out the Torah, and become a Jewish community. Then it becomes a Jewish holy place. We move from place to place when we need to, just like Levites moved the mishkan across the desert, stopping and setting it up at various sites. When Kolot gathers to worship in this church, or the church on 6TH AVENUE AND 2ND STREET, or the synagogue on 14th street where some of our school takes place, we’re a community and we make the space our own holy place. Everywhere we pray together, we bring the holiness with us. And if we hold on to that holiness, or any other holiness from your tree, your cupboard, your spot in the sheep meadow, you can bring holiness throughout your life.

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