When Batya and I were first married, we drove across country, from California (where we had been living for our rabbinic studies) back home to the East Coast. We stopped on the way for a visit to the Grand Canyon. There was a ticketing area that exited to a wooded pathway that led to the rim of the canyon. As we started out on the path, cranky after hours in the car, we got into one of those typical first-year-of-marriage little spats; some disagreement over a petty issue--the kind of disagreements that couples who have been married a few years don’t have anymore. She wanted to go camping and I wanted to stay in a hotel (I have long since learned, when my wife wants to go camping--we go camping!) The argument didn’t end quickly. It got more and more frustrating, and we decided to stop on the pathway and stand off to the side to see if we could just finish the discussion before continuing, so as not to spoil the whole visit. Well, the argument just didn’t end as quickly as we wanted. It was taking way too long, so we decided just to stop the argument and proceed to the rim even though we were still cranky and annoyed at each other. The path wound around, and led to a clearing in the woods. We passed through that clearing and beheld one of the most astonishing things we had ever seen--this canyon, like a grand Cathedral to God on a planetary scale. Its size and scope and wonder was beyond what I had ever imagined. It literally took our breath away. In an instant, not only that spat fell away, but all the other nonsense of life fell away. There was just us before the miracle of life. Before we even realized it, we were holding hands again. We had no words. No emotions other than wonder. We looked at each other, and suddenly there were no blocks to the love we felt for each other. I’ll always appreciate the Grand Canyon for ending a newlywed spat! (and I still owe Batya a camping trip to the Grand Canyon!) But seriously, what a place!
In Hebrew, the word for ‘place’ is Makom. It’s interesting to note that this word, Makom, is also a name of God--HaMakom, The Place. It’s a strange name of God, except when you go to a place like the Grand Canyon. But I’ll tell you something: when it was all said and done, what made the Grand Canyon so God-like wasn’t its physical immensity, it was the fact that there, in that place, Batya and I returned to who we really are for each other.
And so today, I am going to unpack this amazing Divine name, HaMakom. And I’m going to suggest something a little shocking: we create HaMakom. Yes: we create God’s Presence (!), whenever we remember that the most vast and awesome thing there is, wherever we are, is each other.
In the book of Exodus, God tells the Israelites to build a sanctuary: “V’Asu li Mikdash, v’shachanti betocham,” “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” God wants the Israelites to create this special place to house God’s Presence in the midst of the Israelite encampments. This Mikdash, this sanctuary, would become the model of the Temple that would eventually stand in Jerusalem. It’s a funny thing to ponder: why would God, who is everywhere, need a special sanctuary? How can an infinite God be contained in any one place? None other than our own Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote about this, and pointed out that the Hebrew does not say ‘Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it;’ rather, it says, “Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell--betocham--literally, in them,” or even more literally, “within them” (meaning, the Israelites). Furthermore, the Hebrew word ‘v’shachanti’ which means ‘dwell,’ is also the root for the word “Shechinah,” which is another name for God--it actually is the feminine aspect of Divinity--literally, it refers to the in-dwelling Presence of God in the world, and within us; Shechinah is the Divine energy that gives us life, and that binds us together as interconnected lives in this world.
We can put all these ideas together in the Grand Canyon story: What it did for Batya and me was to turn us back to each other. It enabled us to look into each other’s eyes and see the Shekhina, the spark of God that lived betocheinu, within us, and between us. The greatest power of that Makom, that place, wasn’t really the place so much as how it made us Present for each other, and the word Presence is connected to the idea of Makom, of Presence, God’s Presence.
And this is what God meant: build a sanctuary, so that you can use it to find My Divine Presence within you, within each other. The place, the space doesn’t matter as much as the Presence, the moments, the times we spend truly together. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught about this unique quality of Judaism: we’re not a people who specializes in grand edifices and ornate architecture; rather, we live in the “architecture of time.” In his book, The Sabbath, Heshel writes, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space...The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is [Yom Kippur,] a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn...” Another great Jewish thinker, Albert Einstein, developed similar, and very Jewish notions of time when he formulated his theory of general relativity. He came to see that space itself is inconceivable without the medium of time; that one is not possible without the other: it is more correct to talk about ‘spacetime’ rather than these features as separate entities. Once Einstein was asked to put his theory of general relativity into layman’s terms:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”
In other words, time itself is entirely relational. Where you are is dependant upon when you are, and when you are is dependant upon who or what you’re with. To put it yet another way, this moment is the whole universe. And the whole import and grandeur of the cosmos is present right here in every moment that we share together. That’s what HaMakom really means! Grand Canyons, synagogues, our homes-- they’re really just metaphors, reminders of the infinite vastness of this moment that we’re together.
These ideas are what Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, two more great Jewish thinkers meant. And they took these ideas even further. Buber, in his famous book, I and Thou, describes the uncanny experience that happens when I am fully present for you (Thou). In such moments, when we’re really noticing the miraculousness, the preciousness of each other--in that very meeting, in that encounter, there is the Shechinah, the Presence of God, and the infinity of time. Levinas, similarly, described what he called the ‘Face to Face’ encounter: when I truly behold your face, when I really open to what your presence means to me in the moment, your presence matters more to me than myself, you are my everything; all time, all space collapses into who you are for me in this moment, and all that matters is how I can be there for you, and do what is right by you. The beginning of all ethics, all morality, all of God’s Mitzvot--they all begin in this moment, in this place, with your Face right here in front of me. As Jacob said to Esau after all their years of fighting finally ended: “Ki al ken raiti panecha, kir’ot pnei Elohim” “To see your Face is to the see the Face of God.” (Genesis 33:10). And, as the ancient rabbis taught, whenever two Jews face each other, ‘Shechinah shruyah beineihem,’ the Presence of God hovers over them; or even more literally--the presence of God is HaMakom, what is happening in the spacetime between them.
All of these great 20th century Jewish thinkers seem to distill the core message of the Torah: The only way that time is really measured is through our relationships, and the only place to be is with each other. Our time in this life is not what’s ticking on your watch; it’s not measured in how many emails you have to return by tomorrow; it’s not measured by our accomplishments or accolades. The only time that matters is the moments we bring our full awareness to life, to the face, the eyes of the Other: to our beloveds, our colleagues, our children. And even to strangers. This is the point of Judaism. It’s not about buildings or programs or books or legal rulings or rituals or services. These things are just things. They are all tools to bring us face to face with each other; because it is only by truly beholding your face, that I can find the light of God’s presence.
For example, Tzedakah is not just an abstract obligation to give money to worthy causes. Tzedakah is all about HaMakom--how deeply you reach across the divide that separates you from the Other in this moment, in this Place, to heal and repair and nurture our relationship, and our world. Of course, we should keep writing checks to worthy causes. But always remember that all check-writing, and all money is--like the Grand Canyon--just a metaphor, a ritual that extends the way we are called to live our lives with and for each other, moment by moment, in every place we go. Batya has a beautiful practice of Tzedakah that she does as often as she can. Whenever she’s walking down the street and someone asks for money for something to eat, she looks them in the eye and smiles and asks, “What would you like to eat right now?” And they tell her. And then she finds the nearest cafe or Starbucks or supermarket and goes and buys it for them. Her intention is to empower these people, to allow them the dignity to choose to eat what they want. I witnessed her do this on a cold street last winter. The man asked for a sandwich. Without skipping a beat, she went to the nearest cafe and ordered him warm panini sandwich and cup of hot coffee. The look on that man’s face when she put that warm meal into his cold hands--the look of such vast, infinite gratitude--made me realize that I was at the Grand Canyon, in the Presence of God, right there on that cold city street.
HaMakom is also what happens at a Shabbat dinner table. Yes, we have beautiful traditions like candle-lighting, Kiddush, and Motzi over the challah. But always remember that candles and wine and challah are not the point of Shabbat dinner. Those things are just vessels, tools for us to use to enter into the Grand Canyon of time and timelessness otherwise known as Shabbat. And what is Shabbat? Shabbat is the moment we see the light of those candles reflected in the eyes of those we care about. Shabbat is the sharing of the sweetness and satisfaction not of wine and bread--but of this precious time and place of being with these miracles, these faces, these human beings who are here with us, and here for us, right here and right now.
Hamakom is also what happens at a shiva house. We traditionally say "HaMakom yenachem etchem..." May God's Presence, experienced here through our caring presence, bring you comfort and healing.
And finally, what is a syangogue? It’s not a building. In Hebrew, it’s called a Beit Knesset--literally a House, or a Place that houses our Coming Together. The point is not the building, or what’s in it. The point is us, here and now. Nothing more. In a matter of days now, we will begin a major renovation of this building. It’s going to be gorgeous and so exciting. But don’t be fooled. It’s not a building for the sake of a building; just as Judaism is not a religion for the sake of its own laws and ideas: Judaism exists for Jews. The beauty of this building is only here to function as a Makom, a Place that expresses time--Jewish time, times of relationship, of encountering each other truly, fully, with all our hearts. The Charles E. Smith Sanctuary will remind us of the grandeur of our love and connection to each other and to the miracle of Life. The Gewirz Beit Am will remind us of the intimate connections to one another, and to a spirit of Shechinah, of a love that binds community together; the Beit Midrash will bring us literally face to face, in Havruta--as two human beings facing each other, responding to our shared quest for meaning and insight. And the name of our innovative new learning program in that Beit Midrash? What else, MakomDC!
Life really is so precarious and precious, and none of us know how much time we have left. But now is a moment to recall that this synagogue, that all of Judaism, is here to help us to find HaMakom: to treasure this Place and time that we have. When we understand that we always have HaMakom, we no longer need to grasp desperately to life’s fleeting moments of pleasure; we no longer desperately try to “save” time so that we’ll be able to do what matters later. Rather, we cherish HaMakom simply by noticing that the living beings in our lives, right here, right now--they are our whole world, our whole lives. In their eyes, in their touch, in their smile, and even in their pain, there is all the time in the world, and everything that ever mattered since the beginning of time and space itself.
In this New Year, may we embrace the time that we have--not as some abstraction that is measured by a clock; but as the time that lives eternally in this Makom, in this Spacetime that is here/now--wherever this space happens to be in our lives. May this be a year of noticing the miracle of Life and its blessing, always here before us in this moment; and in the face of our beloveds, may we truly find the Face of God.