The Ingredients for Holy Ground©
I want you to think about a holy ground or holy space – what is the first place that comes to mind? What makes it holy to you?
Last week, we were in the mountains of Georgia at Camp Ramah Darom's Winter Break Family Camp. The camp has been our home away from home for many years as individuals and as a couple, but for the last seven winters, we were able to share that feeling with our three children, which is truly a blessing. We get to experience this place which has done so much for our family, literally creating it, together. This was a bitter sweet family camp because after seven winters, we will not be returning so it gives me pause to reflect upon an idea that we are introduced to again in this week and last week's parashah, holy space.
So how does a space or ground become holy? First, I want to share the story of how Ramah Darom started, and I learned about it from an old friend who came with his family to Ramah this Winter. He was family friends with one of the board members, and they decided to take a trip to North Georgia to check out a long-abandoned camp called Tumbling Waters. They stayed in a small cabin that had bats in the ceiling. Scared and frightened, they said, well, this is the place! But it was just a place – no memories, no feeling, literally a plot of land. But it wasn't just a plot of land – it was a holy container waiting to be filled up. And so I'd like to reflect on this idea, of the ingredients of what makes up holy space or holy ground, no matter where we are, and why God wants us to.
Let's look at our first story which I was inspired by this tree as I stepped out of our cabin.
This is before Moses is a prophet, when he is a lowly Sheppard, taking this flock on a humble mountain, not very impressive at all according to the rabbis. But on this humble and nondescript mountain, he sees an extraordinary sight in the most ordinary of places, a thorn bush. He sees a bush aflame, but not consumed, and an angel of the Lord appears to him out of the fire.
And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
Moses must have been very puzzled – what's the big deal about this place? What makes it holy? The commentators were also puzzled. Nachmonides, a famous French Medieval commentator, says, he was still distant from the bush, but God warns him to take off his shoes even in that place because the whole mountain was rendered holy by the descent of the Shekhinah (divine presence) to its peak, just as at the time of the giving of the Torah. We often think it is holy because of this miraculous bush, but it is holy for another reason: one day, this will be the site where God will give Moses and Bnai Israel the Torah – it is a place pregnant with holiness and this is the moment when the seed is planted.
Think back to places that you deem are Admat Kodesh, holy ground. They didn't start out that way did they? When I first came to Ramah, I saw some shabby cabins, a mess hall that shook when too many people were inside singing, and lots of hills. But it is holy because of what we created together. Torah was not only taught, but lived.
The ingredients for a holy container? In my eyes, it is simple – it's not necessarily miracles like a burning bush, but the miracle that will occur there, when Torah, the tree of life, will flourish.
And now, our second story...
Remember that phrase that you cannot get out of your head because of Charlton Heston – Let My People Go. But the first time we see it, it's not exactly Let My People Go; here is the whole quote:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.”
A little more wordy right? But it's important to see what there original demands are – not full freedom from labor, but an opportunity to celebrate God. The JPS commentary looks at this word, Hag, and says it is a sacrificial feast associated with a pilgrimage to a sanctuary. Before the people know about a promised land, they are given this vital idea – that they too can have a sanctuary, or a spiritual home. According to this text, a spiritual home is a place of feasting and celebration to God. It is a center, a place where people gather for a shared and holy purpose. Pharaoh quickly dismisses this request, “why do you distract the people from their tasks? Get to your labors!” In other words, Pharaoh thinks this is just a way to get out of work, but God, Moses and Aaron know it is something greater – the first step to liberation and freedom. If you want to keep people in slavery, the best thing to do is to deny them this basic right – no place to gather and worship together for a higher purpose.
When we think of holy places or holy ground, we often think about solitary places, or of course, the Kotel. But the Kotel is an interesting place – it's a place where we are alone together. You are having your own experience or maybe in a small minyan, but it's not together. We need to change our mindset because God is saying, if you want to find holy ground, you need to do it with others, together. This is another central ingredient – room for others.
And now, I want to take you to the third element, in this week's parashah. We begin the parashah with God's promise to Moses and our people: a place that God swore to their ancestors, their inheritance, a place where they can be home.
And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.
I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.”
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.
They could not find healing, or home, because their spirits were crushed. But it is precisely because their spirits were crushed that they needed a home. For them, they were home, in Egpyt – Mitzraim – a narrow place. They could think of no other reality, but holy ground can show us a different path. And here is where I say holy ground doesn't have to be at a beautiful state of the art summer camp and retreat center, or a place with the history of the Kotel, or a mountaintop; but it can be here.
I want to share a letter I received from a sacred guest, someone who isn't a chaver/congregant here at CSK, but who has felt holiness here:
Dear Rabbi Baum,
This past civil year has been very challenging for me. As we approach this new civil year, I have a few moments to reflect on the bad, and more importantly, the good that has happened this past year. In particular, I reflect on my unexpected trips to Boca Raton to some family members during their trying times in the hospital. I was physically tired and emotionally drained owing visiting family in the hospital and caring for an aging relative. When I looked for the nearest synagogue I was just looking for somewhere to sit in the back, melt, and perhaps find some respite. I was instead welcomed, given an Aliyah honor, and left uplifted.
My subsequent visits were even more uplifting and the warm welcome was and is greatly appreciated. I am sincerely grateful for the fact that my home synagogue rabbi knew of my visit by the time I got back to Los Angeles. This made me feel that I am being treated as a part of the larger community as it should be and I am grateful. As I plan to continue to support my mother and brother, be assured that Shaarei Kodesh will be the spot for us, a home away from home.
Torah, community with a shared purpose, a place where you can be enveloped and uplifted by others in your lowest of times – it's the ingredients for holy ground, holy space.
We have come to yet another New Year. Fred Rodger's said, “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” I came to the end of my own camp experience years ago, but my task became to help create containers of holiness, and not at camp, but in the places where people think God doesn't exist, where holiness cannot be found, like a storefront by a gas station. And I hope you will help me in this New Year, to help others find Torah, community, and respite from the crushed spirit of the hard times in life. May we go from strength to strength in this coming year, and may we plant seeds of holiness wherever we rest our heads and hearts.