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Jewish Journal

Creating a Sacred Space

"We often find ourselves with less time to devote to the things that are truly important in life."

by Elliot Fein

August 1, 2002 | 8:00 pm

In 1978, when I first applied to college, I didn't know what I wanted to study as an undergraduate. I left the space blank on the college application form where I was supposed to indicate an intended major. Someone in the admissions office, based on my grade point average and my achievement test scores, took the liberty and placed me in a major called leisure studies.

At that time, there was a prominent belief that people would soon be working fewer hours each week due to technological advancements. Machine and computers would soon do much of the work that people were doing. As a result, the five-day work week would lessen to four or perhaps three days. What were we supposed to do with all of that free time? By majoring in leisure studies, I would be qualified to help assist people fill that time gap in their lives.

For many people today, the opposite has happened. Work has become even more of an obsession. As a result of technology, and a variety of other factors, many of us spend more hours per week at work, not less. Consequently, we often find ourselves with less time to devote to the things that are truly important in life. Many people on their deathbed express regrets about the life they lived. Many of the regrets people express deal with not spending enough time with family, friends and those that they loved. Rarely does a person express regrets about not spending enough time at work.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian and civil rights activist, in his book "The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man," writes about two realms to human existence: space and time.

Under the category of space, a number of key words come to mind: property, material objects, money, status, prestige and power. In the realm of space, we try to acquire more and more of these items. We often do this by eliminating or controlling the elements of nature.

Under the category of time, other words come to mind: sacred moments, prayer, reflection, meditation, nature, history, acts of kindness and tikkun olam, meaningful human relationships. In the realm of time, we become aware and at one with the awe and wonder of nature and creation. We recognize and celebrate key transitional moments in our lives. We learn and commemorate history. We engage with other human beings, in what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls "I-Thou" relationships. We perform acts of kindness, care and compassion. In the realm of time, we try to create sacred moments in our lives.

In the contemporary world in which we live, our natural inclination is to sacrifice more and more of our time in order to acquire more and more space. What we should do, in order to live a more meaningful spiritual life, according to Heschel, is the opposite. We should sacrifice more of our space in order to elevate and sanctify time.

I would contend that this message from Heschel's "The Sabbath" speaks to the hearts and minds of many people today just as strongly as it spoke to the generation that first read this classic literary work over 50 years ago when the book was first published. Work (and what we obtain through work) can easily become, if we are not careful, the idol that we worship in our lives.

Heschel's message in "The Sabbath" also has something important to say about the longevity of Judaism and the Jewish people. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed close to 2,000 years ago. For most of the past two millennia, Jews have not had a country that they could call their own. The Greeks, the Romans and many other civilizations in history (civilizations that had had vast amounts of territory, that had expanding empires, that possessed huge military might, that built grand monuments and edifices) have come and gone. The Jews have remained.

To Heschel, Judaism and the Jewish people have survived, continued and prospered because of an emphasis -- an emphasis in Judaism as a way of life that places the importance of time over space. The Sabbath, where we attempt to retreat from the world of space, and try to create a temporary palace in time (as Heschel puts it) is an embodiment, the ideal that we can strive for of this principle.

In Exodus, the building of the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites on their journey from Mt. Sinai through the Promised Land, is described in exhaustive detail.

In the middle of the Mishkan, in the holiest part of the sanctuary, stood an ark. In this ark was housed not an idol or an icon, not a monarch or a priest, but originally the decalogue, the two stone tablets of the Covenant that had written on them the Ten Commandments. Later in our history, an entire Torah scroll came to occupy residence in this sacred space.

Access to God in Judaism is gained not by worshipping idols that represent the pantheon of gods, nor by worshipping particular human beings who were viewed as gods or as intermediaries to the gods. God, in Judaism, is one. The Torah and its commandments represent access to the one God.

When we read, study and interpret Torah, and when we attempt to live a life of Torah by applying its lessons to our lives and by observing its commandments, we have an opportunity as Jews to establish a relationship with God. We have an opportunity to come to know the Divine in our lives.

Paganism was the religion and way of life of the ancient world. There was a great seductive lure to engage in the pagan cult. There was often material benefit and physical security showing allegiance to the pantheon of gods.

In building the Mishkan, our ancestors attempted to reject paganism, to assert their belief in the God of Israel, and to live a life in covenant with that belief. A generation of former slaves seems to take that covenant very seriously. According to the Torah, they gave "willingly and generously" from their meager possessions in order to build the Mishkan.

Stylistically, the Torah emphasizes the importance of what the Mishkan represented by the manner in which it describes its construction. In the very beginning of the Torah, in the Book of Genesis, it takes 32 verses to describe God creating the world. In the Exodus, it takes 64 verses to describe the construction, by human hands, of the Mishkan.

The Mishkan had a nickname. It was also called in Hebrew, hechal, which means in English "a palace." Heschel describes the Sabbath in his book as a "temporary palace in time." In calling Shabbat a palace, I can not help but think that Heschel is making, in his mind, a connection between these two great Jewish institutions. That there is a connection between the Mishkan and what it represented to our ancestors, and the Sabbath and what it can represent to us today.

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