A HOLY PLACE
“Only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you.” (Deuteronomy 12:14)
Those who read my weekly messages know that I love quoting Broadway shows. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s haunting melody in West Side Story, “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.” This week’s portion introduces the idea of a special place, a place where God allows God’s holy Name to dwell.
Both in our secular lives and our religious lives, the idea of a special place resonates with the human spirit. In the secular world, art lovers speak of the Louvre in Paris, France. Theater lovers speak of Broadway in New York City. Country music lovers speak about the joys of visiting Nashville. Elvis lovers speak of Graceland in Memphis. Baseball lovers speak of visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. I am a movie lover. This summer, while visiting my hometown of Los Angeles, my wife and I visited the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sure it is schlock, but it is my kind of schlock.
If special places are important in the secular world, how much more so in the world of religion. Many faiths have places that are holy. When I was young and beginning to explore religion, I was deeply moved by The Autobiography of Malcolm X (published in 1965). The civil rights leader, soon to be assassinated, described his trip to Mecca after his conversion to Islam. One of the pillars of the Muslim faith is for every Muslim who is able to participate in the Hajj, a once in a lifetime trip to Mecca. He passionately describes his emotions of participating with those who shared his faith from all over the world.
Catholics speak of the power of visiting the Vatican in Rome. Most Protestants, with a very individualistic approach to religion, have no such holy places. Hindus purify themselves in the Ganges River, the holiest body of water in the world. In Japan, followers of the Shinto faith make a pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji. Allow me to quote one more Broadway show, the hilarious if irreverent The Book of Mormon. A young woman in Uganda, seeking to convert to the Mormon faith, sings a moving ballad about her image of a perfect place Sal Tlay Ka Siti (Salt Lake City).
In this week’s portion we introduce the idea of a holy place in Judaism. It is the only place where holy offerings will be allowed. The portion commands every able-bodied person making a pilgrimage to this holy place three times a year, on Pesach (the feast of Passover), Shavuot (the feast of weeks), and Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles.) These three festivals have a special name in Judaism, shalosh regalim, literally “three feet.” Jews would make a pilgrimage to the holy place by foot.
The Torah does not specify where this place is. But eventually it was King David who established the city of Jerusalem as the holy place. His son Solomon built the great Temple there, and after that Temple was destroyed, it was rebuilt. The rebuilt Temple was also destroyed, but Jews throughout the world pray for the day when it will be rebuilt. Meanwhile, the remaining wall of that Temple, the Western Wall, is the holiest place in the world for Jews. It almost like a magnet in the draw it has for Jewish souls.
Allow me to share a memory. My mother was never the most religious person. But she and my father came to visit me in Israel while I was studying there my junior year in college. It was their first trip. I took them to the Kotel (the Western Wall), and my mother immediately burst into tears. I asked her why she was crying and she answered, “The stones are so old!” Something about those old stones touched my mother’s soul.
As human beings, we need special places, or if we are religious, holy places. Not every place on earth is equal. When I say my daily prayers, I face towards Jerusalem. When I am in Jerusalem, I face the Wall. For me, it will always be a holy place.