July 10, 2003
Parshat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)
The second part of this week's double portion, Chukat-Balak, is rather humorous, and even curious. In the second part of the portion, Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam who is considered to be the world's greatest wizard, to curse the Israelites. Yet, when this great sorcerer attempts to curse Israel, his curses turn into blessings.
One of the blessings that Balaam utters is familiar to us since we utter -- or sing -- it when we enter a synagogue. He says "Ma Tovu": "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel." This poetic line creates a parallel between tents and dwelling places, yet they are not exactly the same. The tents could be understood as the places where the individual, Jacob, lives -- and the dwelling places, mishk'notekha, are the special places that the people, Israel, dwell. If we look closely at mishk'notekha we see that the Hebrew root mishkan (tabernacle) is at its core. The mishkan is the place where God dwelled while the Israelites wandered in the desert. Israel's dwelling places are not only those that the people inhabit, but they are God's dwelling place as well.
Sacred places are those sites where we can experience a unique sense of connection; these are the places where we turn outside of ourselves and become aware of our place in the universe. We sense the energies and flow of the universe and where we have a heightened sense that there is something larger than each of us that informs how we exist in the world.
What is the connection between an individual's tent -- one's own home -- and the place where the people encounter God's presence -- the place they enter where God dwells? Where are our sacred places?
If I were to ask you to name a sacred place, you might say a synagogue. The synagogue is sacred not only because that is where we go to pray, but also because we make connections there. We create relationships with others, with our community. It is also a base of opportunities for doing acts of kindness and making offerings of tzedekah. We connect to each other and to God.
There are other places in our lives where we can find this sense of the sacred. Other Jewish organizations that do holy work come to mind: The Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service and our Jewish Community Centers. Our Jewish schools educate families on the value of being Jewish, how to be more Jewish and how to develop the spiritual aspects of their lives.
We can become even more personal and acknowledge that there are holy places in our personal lives as well. Consider what are the holy places in your homes. Maybe it is your dining room table; that is where Shabbat and holiday meals occur. You might say your den, since that is where you keep your Jewish books, where you read and think. Maybe it is your kitchen, because not only does the holy work of preparing food happen there, but that is often where family and friends gather to talk, share feelings and discuss ideas. Possibly it is the quiet of your bedroom, because that is where you find privacy or intimacy.
How do you transform your home to be not just a sacred space, but a Jewish sacred space? Physically, you can look at what is in your home that marks it as a Jewish one. What books, magazines, artwork reflect your Jewish identity? Are there any ritual items on display? You know that your home is not just a physical place, but also an emotional and spiritual place. What do you do in your home to make it so? Do you celebrate Jewish holidays there? Do you say blessings in it? In what ways do you express gratitude for the gifts you have? How do you treat the ones you care about who live with you or come to visit? What are the words you use to speak with them? In what tone do you communicate with them? What do you talk about? Do you talk about sports, homework or politics? Do you also talk about values and ideals? Do you consider how to help others? Do you discuss the meaning of life? These conversations and how you have them create a Jewish home imbued with sanctity.
There is a direct connection between our individual tents -- our homes -- where we each live and the places that we enter where we consider God to be dwelling. God dwells everywhere; it is our job to let God in.
We can do that in our synagogues and Jewish institutions. We can also turn our very homes into places where God dwells with us. Then we can say "Ma Tovu": "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel."
What a blessing.
Rabbi Mimi Weisel teaches at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.