One of the most famous rhetorical question in Jewish tradition comes from a non-Jewish person who was sent out to curse the Jewish people, and instead was inspired to bless them. Standing on a mountain, looking out to the valley of the tents of the tribes of Israel, he uttered: May Tovu- How good are your tents O Jacob?
He was awestruck. To curse a people is easier to do if you don’t see them, if you don’t know them. But, once you gaze out upon their humanity, you have no choice but to admire their ingenuity, their creativity, their special ways in the world.
This scene, and this simple verse, inspired an entire prayer traditionally to be said upon entering a synagogue.
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל. Numbers 24:5
וַאֲנִי בְּרב חַסְדְּךָ אָבא בֵיתֶךָ אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל הֵיכַל קָדְשְׁךָ בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ. Psalms 5:8
How great are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
As for me, through Your abundant grace, I enter your house to worship with awe in Your sacred place.
O Lord, I love the House where you dwell, and the place where your glory tabernacles.
I shall prostrate myself and bow; I shall kneel before the Lord my Maker.
To You, Eternal One, goes my prayer: may this be a time of your favor. In Your abundant love, O God, answer me with the Truth of Your salvation. (As translated here).
What a wonderful way to enter into a sacred place. With awe, with gratitude, with reverence.
In these times of COVID-19, though, our houses of worship are closed off to us. Fortunately, our rabbis had a proscription for this very scenario. You see, when the great Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the decentralized synagogue system was set up to allow for access and geographic reach. Synagogues became places where people would gather to lift up their hearts and spirits. But, the rabbis extended the idea of synagogue life to the home— they said that the home could become a mikdash m’at— a small sanctuary. A holy place. A space for the Divine to dwell. In the absence of synagogue life, our homes become the physical places where we can lift up our yearnings to God.
Fortunately, because of Zoom, we don’t have to let that isolate us. We can still connect, in real time, with one another’s spiritual energy and force to allow for a sacred worship experience.
This year, Keeping It Sacred will host High Holy Day programming so please stay tuned for these. As we shape what the opportunities to be together will look like, we are seeking your thoughts— please fill out the one-page questionnaire HERE to let us know what you might be interested in so that we can plan a meaningful High Holy Day season.
The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9. Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.