Parshat Achrey Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30; I Samuel 20:18-42. (Shabbat Machar Chodesh)
By Rabbi Yoni Dahlen
An intrinsic element of human nature is a seeking out of sacred space. It’s something built into the fabric of who we are.
Monotheists and polytheists, agnostics and atheists, may disagree when it comes to the vocabulary we use or the accreditation we give to those holy spaces, but there is a near consensus that some places carry with them a different energy, a sense of awe, of wonder, of making us rethink the world as we know it.
Though one would think that I, as a rabbi, would have a proclivity to talk about sacred space from a solely Jewish context, to speak on the power of the synagogue and the beit midrash, my personal experience has led me to a somewhat different conclusion, one that I think about every time I read this parshah of Achrey Mot.
I believe, truly and deep in my heart, that the sacred comes not just from the impressive, not just from towering structures or incredible natural landscapes, but rather from a sense of growth, of education, of learning something important when in a space.
In Judaism, our sacred spaces have time and again reinforced this nuance. Our holy sites have not simply been revered monuments, but rather points of communal ingathering in times of joy, celebration, tragedy, loss and grief.
The Israelites were tasked with moving forward after the tragic loss of Aaron’s sons, but they were also tasked with changing their entire understanding of life as they knew it: In the wilderness, in the open space of redemption, in freedom, even with God by their side, there exist incomprehension, confusion and uncertainty.
And yet, it is the freedom to live and learn from that tragedy that brings this community closer together, that allows the men, women and children of Israel to cry and to shout, to wail and to shake their fists at the God who promised them milk and honey, not loss and mourning. It is the freedom to be unsettled to the core that creates something powerful, something theologically, philosophically and existentially challenging and, yes, something holy.
Because holiness requires some quality of transcendence, the whole notion of sacred space and place takes on a dimension in Judaism, where we find that sacred element not just in the synagogue and in the beit midrash, but also in the hospital, in the shivah house and at the cemetery.
We find the Divine in moments when we let go of the tethers that keep our hearts hidden from the public eye, when we sing songs around the Shabbat table, when we dance with a celebrating bride and groom, when we see our children finding their own sacred space, their own sacred time.
Our mishkans, our sacred places, go far beyond synagogue walls. They are, in fact, wherever we allow them to exist, wherever we choose to open doors of growth and vulnerability, where we come together as family, as community to experience the deepest anguish and the highest joys of life as we know it, and where we allow ourselves to turn off our busy brains, to sit in the present and to feel.
As we march forward into the freedom given to us through the holiday of Passover, may we embrace every holy place on the path ahead. May we gather the strength to learn and grow with that holiness, and may that growth be contagious throughout our families, our city, and throughout klal Yisrael and all of God’s creation.
Rabbi Yoni Dahlen is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.