Sacred Space

Shemini By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Apr 6, 2002 / 5762

The writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel are justifiably popular. Many educators, especially but not only in the Conservative movement, teach Heschel’s views on prayer, Shabbat, and God’s place in the lives of the individual and the nation. One of Heschel’s most frequently talked-about concepts is that Judaism holds time to be more sacred than space. In Heschel’s most famous example, the Shabbat has greater holiness than any place or building.

Emphasizing holy time over holy space gives important benefits. Judaism has survived only because it is not dependent on being practiced in any particular place. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem did not spell the end of Jewish worship. That worship shifted from sacrifice to prayer, and prayer can be offered anywhere. Group rituals such as a Passover seder can take place anywhere. Practices exercised by an individual, such as kashrut and tzedakah, can be done anywhere. Portability has led to durability.

However, the Torah does emphasize sacred space. The second half of the Book of Exodus and much of the Book of Leviticus relates to the construction of the mishkan, the worship space that preceded the Temple, and the rituals performed there. Lest anyone take the notion of sacred space lightly, the Torah tells, in this week’s parasha, that God destroys those who violate sacred space. Aaron1s own sons, Nadav and Avihu, high priests in training, are struck down when they, during their service in the mishkan, “offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them.” (Leviticus 10:1-2) Biblical commentator S.D. Luzzato (Italy, 19th Cent) explains that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was pride. Not being content with the subordinate role assigned to them, they went beyond what they had been told to do. Not only that, but, not trusting that God would send the fire to consume their offering, they presumed to bring the fire themselves — and in bringing fire, they were punished with fire.

Perhaps the message of this episode in that the concept of sacred space does exist, but it is not the place of human beings to add to the sacredness beyond what God has provided. In this sense, we can consider Israel as sacred space — the Holy Land — yet also understand the limits of holiness. The fire of zeal is good when it gives warmth and light. But when brought with misplaced pride, the fire blows back on those who brought it. At this particular moment, when Israelis are trying to steady themselves, it might not seem to be the time to speak of the excesses of pride. But one can wonder to what extent such excesses helped create the fires that are now burning.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.