Places can be important.
Jerusalem, New York, London. The shul you go to, the house you grew up in, your favorite park or museum. Many of us even have a favorite spot in our homes, a favorite table at our local hangout, a makom kavuah (habitual seat) in the Bet Midrash or shul. We like these places. They are part of our daily lives, our routines.
But these places are not necessarily the same thing as a Place, Jewishly speaking.
We carry most of our places within ourselves.
When we speak of Beit Yisrael (the House of Israel), or Knesset Yisrael (the Assembly of Israel) that’s not a physical location: that is all of us, wherever we are. There is a reason that there is no masechta in the Talmud dedicated to the laws of what a shul must look like: there are nearly no laws at all on the subject. Because location, even a physical building, is irrelevant. All a shul requires is for ten Jews to come together for the purposes of prayer. All a Jewish community needs is Jews. And no individual Jew needs a special spot or sheltered locale in order to be a flourishing observant Jew: wherever we are is the correct spot.
Because everything we need, we carry within ourselves: the covenant is not something we take with us, it is something that is part of us. Our Rabbis famously teach us (BT Shabbat 146a and Shevuot 39a) that all the souls of all the Jews who ever were or would be were present together at Sinai. Every one of us therefore has the potentiality within us to affirm revelation, to fulfill mitzvot, to add our voices to the Torah she’be’al peh (the Oral Torah) which we collectively helped God to found, and within which paradigm we have taken the burden of Torah out of the heart of Heaven and into our own hearts. Whether you take this midrash at face level, or you take it as a metaphor for the capacity we Jews share for revelatory experiences understood within the framework of our tradition, the point remains the same.
This universal potentiality that we have to transform space from normal to sacred is something innately internal to us: this is our Place. And any of the myriad places we might happen to be in can become our Place. We do this when we make minyanim; when we transform our tables each into a mizbe’ach me’at (altar in miniature) on a Shabbat or holiday; when we make brachot in whatever random spot we do something brachah-worthy; when we clean our households and remove chametz for Pesach; and so on. Sacredness can be anywhere that we can go.
I think this is a reflection in miniature: something that goes along with us being tzalmei elohim—images of God, who is also called ha-Makom (the Place). Not because He exists any more in one location than in another, but because, existing equally in all locations, anyplace we are is an opportunity for us to encounter Him. Similarly, we find within ourselves the capacity to transform anyplace from non-holy to holy: in the process, opening ourselves to the possibility of encountering God.
The word Makom comes from the root kom (kuf-vav-mem), meaning “to arise” or “to stand.” By using this as a name for God, we remind ourselves that God is with us, is near us, is open and accessible to us, in whatever place we are standing. And we have the option to seek Him out with any deed we do, anything we stand up for, any occasion for which we rise to act.
In parashat va-Yetzei Ya’akov (Gen. 28:16), our ancestor Ya’akov famously remarks, upon awaking from his revelatory dream, achen yesh Hashem ba’makom ha-zeh, v’anochi lo yadati (“God really is here, in this very place– and I…I didn’t know!”). It is up to us to remember that everywhere we go, with every action we take, we are privileged to have the opportunity to make the same realization.email print