One week ago, I had the pleasure of standing on a different Bimah. Really, it was a stage in a large room at a conference hotel, but in that moment, it was a Bimah. I had been given the honor, and had the pleasure, of leading T’fillah on Friday night for the L’Taken Seminar with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to which we had brought some of our Confirmation and Post-Confirmation teens. Our synagogue joined with dozens of others, for this gathering of hundreds of teens, who spend the weekend learning about important issues of our day, how the political process works, and ultimately lobbying on capitol hill in the offices of their senators and representatives. I think this was my 10th time attending this program with a group of teens (there are about 5 such weekends each year—so that thousands of teens participate annually). And it was my first time leading services. It felt special.
To make it even more personally significant, I was leading the service with my friend Rachel—a wonderful songleader, whom I have known since she was in high school and was a participant at the Kutz Camp. We’ve kept in touch over the years, I even performed her wedding (incidentally, I also knew her wife in high school, but completely separately), and Rachel and I have both been at worship services led by each other many times. But this was our first time leading together. It was a true shehecheyanu moment for me—a moment of new opportunity and being thankful for having that moment.
As we began the service, knowing that teenagers at the beginning of an event are not always excited to pray and sing with energy, I encouraged the students to begin to use their voices and to channel their inner feelings through those voices. And from there, we led into the chance we’d have at that worship service and throughout the weekend to use our voices. And then Rachel taught them a song that we’d be singing throughout the weekend—Elana Arian’s I Have a Voice…a song I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one for whom it is still stuck in my head—the chorus includes the words: I have a voice, my voice is powerful, my voice can change the world. A truth that I’ve long known, that was again demonstrated for me throughout the weekend with our young people.
As I had the joy of seeing those young people use their voices, with all their power, to change their worlds.
And, in doing so, they also transformed the space that we were in, into a holy space. As I said, our services last Shabbat were in a hotel ballroom, and most of our time over the course of the weekend was spent in the conference hotel. But that ballroom became our sanctuary. And the small meeting rooms became our houses of study. And every part of that hotel became sacred space. Even our bus became sacred space. As relationships formed between participants, as we learned how to honor each other and the world, and as we considered how to make the world into the world we want it to be. This idea, of the ability to transform space, is not new.
In the Torah this week, as we read, Moses and the Israelites are instructed,
“Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Within this verse is the recognition that humanity needs things which are holy—we need sacred space, and here in the parashah is the original creation of such a thing. Previous to this, there had been instances of places being recognized as holy—but this is the first time that something is made by human hands (although by Divine instruction in this case) for the sole purpose of being sacred. Two terms in Hebrew are used to designate the Tabernacle: mikdash and mishkan. Literally, a place of holiness and a place of dwelling. Indeed, both descriptions are apt in describing a space such as this. By way of recognizing that a space is holy, we allow God’s presence to be in that space. Whatever our personal conception of the meaning of “God’s presence,” that presence is invited in when we treat a space as holy, as sacred—as uniquely valuable. Sanctity is a matter of human declaration. Through our actions and through our words does a space become holy. We intuitively know how to treat such spaces in order to designate them as holy, and how to treat them once we understand that they are holy.
Because we know that physicality isn’t the sole element that sanctifies a space—it’s also what lies within. Honi the Circle Maker, a character from rabbinic literature, is named so because he drew circles on the ground, and stood within them to pray. The most simple way of creating a sacred spot…not building anything, but drawing shapes in the sand. Standing within the circle, he was able to pray most honestly to God. His prayers were answered. If a circle of ground can be holy, then certainly any space can be holy as well. If we treat a place as sacred, then it is.
And when we are a k’hillah k’dosha—a holy community—we are able to bring that sanctity to every space where we dwell. Whether in our sanctuaries such as the one in which we find ourselves right now; in the rest of this building; when we participate in programs outside of the synagogue; in summer camps which become holy for those communities, even when the space is used in other ways, as well; and, yes, in conference rooms at hotels that become modern mishkans—spaces that are made into sacred ones, while our community dwells there, exactly because we declare them to be so. And because we treat them as such—and treat each other as such—while we are within them. When we recognize that within each of us is the Divine Spark, and treat each other as if God is a presence within each relationship, and within the community, this space, and any place, is truly a sacred space. When we make people feel welcome, no matter who they are and what they look like or where they come from, this is a sacred space. When we make sure that we meet the diverse needs of the community, at all times as we especially remind ourselves to do so during this Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, this is sacred space. When we not only recognize, but celebrate each other and our accomplishments, when we hold each other through our difficulties, and when we honor our experiences—this is sacred space.
Our voices are, indeed, powerful. They can change places and they can change worlds. Our voices can change the lives of those around us, and even our own. And we must use them responsibly. In order to declare this space, every space, as sacred.
In the words of our ancestor Jacob, Aken Adonai bamakom HaZeh:
Surely God is in this place.
And we—we need to know it. We must declare it.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon. Ken Y’hi Ratzeinu.
May it be God’s will and may it be our will.