On this Yom Kippur, we gather together to reflect on the power of Jewish sacred space and the opportunity to affirm our Jewish identities by endowing our spaces with more sanctity in the year ahead.
For thousands of years, the mezuzah…the tiny box affixed to our doorposts, containing a scroll of Torah excerpts…has been the universal marker that a space is Jewish.
There’s the story of the wealthy Jewish man who buys a mansion in Beverly Hills. He hires a designer to do the decorating.
When the job is finished, the homeowner is delighted but realizes that he's forgotten to put up the mezuzahs. He buys a bunch and asks the decorator to place them on the right hand side of each door.
He's worried that the decorator will chip the paint or affix them incorrectly. However, when he returns a few hours later, he sees that the job has been carried out perfectly!
But as the decorator is leaving, he says, "Glad you're happy with the job...By the way, I took out the funny looking warranties in each one and left them on the table."
And so this morning, beyond the question of the mezuzah and its scroll: What makes a space sacred? And how can the sacred spaces of our lives (namely our homes and our synagogue) enable us to reaffirm our own Jewish identity?
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes about Jewish space by noting the following: “At our best, we men and women are moved to act as God does, and when we do, we create sacred sites of our own. Our maps of the sacred are thus a human recognition of the traces of God’s presence on one hand and a road map of the human spirit at its finest on the other.”
A Jewish sacred space, according to Hoffman, is one that inspires us to be different and better people by incorporating the transcendent values that are encapsulated in the design of that space, and embedded in the values that are lived out there.
The Hebrew word makom, for “place,” comes from the root koof-vav-mem meaning “to exist” or “to stand upright,” suggesting that a place was designated in ancient times by a vertical marker. A place became official - it existed - when it was formally marked.
Later, the rabbis of the Talmud took to calling God HaMakom - the Place - because God exists everywhere, in all places.
Jewish mystics expounded on that idea, noting that the universe began with God literally inhabiting every square inch. From one end of the galaxies to the other - God’s Presence was everywhere.
And then, God decided to contract God’s Self…so that Creation as we know it (including us) would have room to come into being.
Think about it: we exist because God generously made room for us. We should strive to honor that generosity by embracing the Jewish tradition of sharing. God shared with us, and so we must return the favor by sharing with others.
That sharing begins in our homes. The kitchen table is so significant that the rabbis called it a mikdash m’at - a miniature version of the holy inner sanctum of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
In the year ahead: let’s give thought to the Jewishness of our homes, and the ways in which our Tradition encourages us to share with others there.
We might seek to practice what our Union for Reform Judaism calls “audacious hospitality” by inviting guests into our home. What better way for us to reaffirm our home’s Jewishness than by sharing our meals with others?
The notion of hosting others might not sound like a Big Deal. But our Tradition sees it otherwise. The rabbis of the Talmud (B. Shabbat 127a) actually debated exactly how big of a deal it was to be a host:
Rabbi Yochanan said: Hospitality […] is as great as early attendance at the House of Study... And Rav Dimi said: It is even greater than that. And Rav Yehuda cited Rav: Hospitality is even greater than welcoming the actual literal presence of God!
Sharing with guests is even bigger than getting to personally greet God. Audacious hospitality is a very big deal.
Our Jewish values, and the imperative to share our bounty, can also inform what we do once a meal is over.
We know of the glut of leftovers that remain, particularly after a week of shiva or at the end of a Bat Mitzvah celebration. This year we can intentionally plan to prevent that precious food from going to waste. Given that 1 in 8 Americans are hungry today, isn’t it time we started to more aggressively share what we have with them?
I want to call your attention to Open Arms Shelter in White Plains. Unlike other soup kitchens, Open Arms accepts food even if it has already been served at a function. Please keep them in mind the next time you have substantial leftovers.
Sharing our food resources is not just an action expressed between us and other people. It can also mean disposing of food waste in such a way that our refuse becomes a gift to the environment.
One of the highlights of my time at Eisner Camp over the last few years has been the opportunity to live in a community that intentionally composts. On the first day of every session, campers are very quickly taught that composting is at the center of what Eisner is all about. Composting is related to recycling…and the idea that our food waste doesn’t just have to languish in a landfill. If tended to properly, our ugly food waste can be the basis for enriched soil that can, with some TLC, give birth to something new and beautiful.
Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, echoed our hope when he wrote that: “The ground’s generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty! Try to be more like the ground.”
Inviting guests for a meal. Sharing our leftover food with the hungry. And composting our waste. Three easy things we can do to create a new found sense of sacred space, by infusing our homes with the core values of our tradition.
There is also the question of our Jewish space here, in the heart of our synagogue, in our sanctuary.
Over the last year, we have successfully begun to implement the radical transformation effort resulting in a pledge-based financial model. That shift was a result of seeking to apply our congregation’s values to the way we manage and organize ourselves financially.
It’s time for us to begin applying that same relationally centered, values-based methodology to the way we evaluate the state of our synagogue building, and more specifically, the sacred space of this historic sanctuary.
There is so much in this space that our community takes pride in. There is the distinguished art, representing the different streams of history of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El. There are the family histories marked by baby namings, Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, Confirmations, weddings, conversions, and funerals, that all took place on this bimah.
Our communal memory is also tied up within this space. This is where we learned from our cherished teachers…Rabbi Klein: how many times have you ascended these steps to bless this multitude as you will once again bless us at the end of this morning’s service? And how many times did Cantor Ben David, of blessed memory, ascend these steps to sing Shalom Rav and the rest of our liturgy?
How might we transform this space - this sacred site of memory - in a way that will continue to honor the rich and wonderful history of this makom…this holy place that we all call home?
I broach this subject because of words that hang right outside our sanctuary - words that express the essence of what our community is about. The plaque that hangs in our lobby reads:
Hineynu - We are Here. Creating a Covenant Community. Of Shared Lives and Real Relationships.
It’s hard for us to live up to this lofty vision, if our sacred space is not accessible; if its aesthetics have not been kept current; and if its functionality prevents us from really connecting with one another.
Let me begin to elaborate, with a statement that we all know is true.
This is not a space that is safe.
The steps of this sanctuary are stumbling blocks of the worst kind for congregants of all ages. And they are simply insurmountable to anyone who uses a wheelchair. These steps, which are supposed to enable us to ascend to our Torah have instead become a barrier, preventing some from fully participating in Shabbat and lifecycle celebrations.
Dayenu - it would absolutely be enough of a reason for us to invest in a more accessible sanctuary so as to accommodate those with physical challenges.
But Rabbi Elliot Dorff strongly advises against the notion of creating categories - those who are able bodied and those who are not. Instead, Dorff teaches us that the able-bodied amongst us would do well to embrace the notion that we are “temporarily abled.” We should all be more humble about the abilities of our bodies, and recognize that everyone will face physical challenges at one point or another in our lives.
And of all of the spaces that we visit during our lifetimes, shouldn’t our sanctuary be one that welcomes us at every stage of our life, regardless of how difficult it is for us to move around?
But this isn’t just a conversation about accessibility and inclusion.
There is also the question of aesthetics, represented by the Jewish value of hiddur mitzvah - the beautification of a commandment. In our sanctuary’s case, it’s the question of the artistic design of the space and the extent to which that design elevates and magnifies the experience we have when we gather here.
We know that definitions of beauty and meaning transform over time. That’s the reason that an engaging repertoire of Jewish music evolves over time with different periods and tastes represented, so that that repertoire doesn’t get permanently frozen in one historical moment.
The same is true with the liturgy of our prayerbook. Both the Hebrew and the English continue to evolve as the definition of what constitutes beautiful and engaging language develops.
As the aesthetics of synagogues also evolve, it is now time for us to give thought to the design of this space and whether our sanctuary represents the sense of beauty and inspiration we aspire to.
The rabbis of the Midrash suggest that there is an invisible connection between the aesthetics of the fulfillment of a commandment and the inner beauty of the people engaged in that sacred task. The Midrash notes: “You are beautiful, my love, you are beautiful, through mitzvot . . . beautiful through deeds of loving kindness, . . . through prayer [offered beautifully in beautiful spaces], through a beautiful recitation of “Shema,” through [a beautiful] mezuzah, […] through [a beautiful] Sukkah…”
The rabbis’ message is - well, beautiful. We heighten our own sense of inner spiritual beauty - the positive Jewish senses of ourselves - when we practice Jewish life in aesthetically pleasing spaces and in aesthetically pleasing ways.
I would note, though, that Van Gogh once said: “There is nothing more truly [beautiful] than to love other people.”
And so, there is a third reason that our sacred space here deserves attention, and it is tied to the question of functionality, and our ability to relate deeply to one another.
Our sanctuary is currently failing us in terms of what we are, and are not, able to do here. Fixed tiered seating prevents Cantor Becker and I from facilitating worship for smaller groups of people, when we might be inclined to arrange the chairs differently.
Of even more concern is the fact that our current seating prevents us from being in meaningful relationship with one another.
Our rabbis remind us that the holy ark, which held the Ten Commandments in the ancient temple, was capped by a sculpture of two cherubic angels, and they were intentionally facing one another. They were able to see one another. To notice the other’s distress. So that they could reach out, and help one another. Shouldn’t we aspire to do the same, with the ability to configure our seating in such a way that we might look at, and be with, one another?
My hope and dream for our communal sacred space is that our architecture, the aesthetics, and the relational dynamics of our worship, will inspire and enable us to love and care for one another even more meaningfully in the years to come.
Our temple president, Joel Wagman, has appointed a team to guide us through the process that lies ahead. There will be a number of opportunities in the coming months for you to share your view: about how we can honor our past and best meet the needs of our future. From the very bottom of my heart, I hope you’ll join us in dialogue so that we can together envision a revitalized sacred space for our community.
My colleague, Rabbi Les Bronstein writes of a teaching that came to him by way of Rabbi Art Green, who learned it from his teacher…the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Soloveitchik believed that the single most important blessing to be recited during Yom Kippur was the Shehechiyanu immediately following Kol Nidrei, words that we dutifully shared last night. We recite those words, Soloveitchik taught, because they affirm our survival. Here we are - together - ready to journey forward into another year.
Soloveitchick insisted that we pay close attention to the words of the blessing itself: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam - Blessed are You, Master of Space and Time. She’he’chiyanu - who has kept us alive. V’kiyimanu - from that very same Hebrew root koof.vav.mem - who has propped us up as markers of sacred space - v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, lamakom hazeh - and who (through miracle after miracle) has brought us to this time, and this holy space.
May all the spaces we create reflect the generosity that has been a hallmark of history since the very first moment of creation, when God first shared space with us. And may 5777 be the year when we return that favor, by sharing the very best of our spaces, and all the values embedded within them, with others. And let us say together: Amein.