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How Do You Recognize That a Place Is Sacred?
What makes a place sacred? "Sacred" is not as easily recognized as, say, "happy" or "dangerous." When cartoon characters chance upon sun-drenched streams that bubble with promise or darkened caves that fairly reek of monster habitation, we know exactly what these are.
The sacred is not so easily pictured. Even Jacob didn't appreciate the presence of God when he stumbled upon it. It took a dream of angels connecting heaven and earth for him to name his place Beth El ("House of God"); "Surely, God is in this place," he confesses, "and I did not know it."
How, then, do we, who are less practiced than Jacob in the art of the holy, know the sacred when we come across it?
There are natural sites of grandeur that evoke awe enough to evoke psalms of praise. Standing on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, psychologist C.G. Jung reports a "higher state of consciousness." Albert Einstein found the sacred in the "harmony of the universe," because it imbued him "with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand it." Judaism greets these inherently sacred places with blessings. We stop before them and say, "Blessed is God ... for the work of creation."
Unlike the inherently sacred, historically sacred places do come camouflaged; they may be nothing more than decrepit dumps. That's why we carry guide books with us, and why tourist signs adorn the ordinary remains of unordinary occurrences.
Historically, sacred sites often occasion disagreement. "There are no miracles," the skeptic says. But the modern-day religionist need not claim the supernatural in order to invoke the category of miracle; newborn babies are nothing if not natural, but we may think of them as miracles.
It all depends on viewpoint, Martin Buber taught us. Take the splitting of the Red Sea. Suppose it was caused by a favorable wind or low tide. Or suppose it didn't even split. What matters is that, whatever actually happened, the Israelites saw it as a miracle, and ever after, invited us to see it that way.
However, we can hardly live each day at the Grand Canyon or Mount Carmel, so Judaism acknowledges a third category of the sacred: places that are holy just because we say they are. Like historically sacred sites, these require human markers, but they do not just indicate some holiness already there; they create the holy to begin with. Inherently and historically sacred places are sacred whether we recognize it or not. Here, the sacred is conferred by us and us alone.
That is why the portion this week instructs us, "Venerate my sanctuary." The most obvious meaning of "sanctuary" is the Temple, but the term extends to places after the Temple's destruction, like synagogues and seminaries. We should include our own homes as well. We do not just say blessings over such places; we put up mezuzot -- the announcement that we ourselves have summoned God to lend a presence here.
Human beings are the only species that appreciate the sacred. We alone can recognize the holiness inherent in nature and bestowed by history. But what is most stunning is our capacity to create holiness where none existed before.
Creation out of nothing is the highest form of artistry. Tradition imputes it to God; it is how God created the universe.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.