What the Fou​r Corners of the Earth Truly Mean



At the moment humans were created, our sages say, God gathered earth from the four points of the compass, as if to promise that wherever we die, the earth will be there to receive us. We are but borrowed soil, gathered and quickened into temporary life. Ever since, we human beings have been yearning for each other's company.

This week's portion addresses the need to gather, when it discusses meal offerings, only part of which were offered to God. The priests ate the rest, in a holy place of gathering, the Temple courtyard.

And, in addition to meal offerings, a daily offering called tamid was the rule. These sacrifices were wholly consumed by flame; nothing remained for priestly consumption. Still, people gathered to watch it — not just priests, but ordinary Israelites, too. And at holidays, pilgrims from all over flocked to the Temple to gather in celebration.

But back to creation for a moment. When God decided to gather earth from all four compass points to create us, God did not have to travel as far as the eye can see to get it. To God, after all, near and far are the same. So God just reached down and scooped out earth from four nearby symbolic spots.

But the borrowed earth left empty holes, of course, which God did not fill in, there being nothing around with which to fill them, except more earth that would make four more holes, etc. So think of it: All the millions of human beings that ever were and that ever will be come from four eternally unfilled holes in the ground. The Talmud calls them shitin.

As the point where human life began, those cavities were sacred, so God ordered the Temple built above them. The four corners of the altar were held in place by being inserted into the shitin. Gathering in proximity to the altar evoked recognition of our mortality, since we could not help but think of our beginnings as plain earth, quickened to be sure, but only momentarily, compared to a universe whose age boggles the imagination.

When the Temple fell, we replaced sacrifice with prayer — a new form of worship likened to the "offering of our lips." For prayer, too, we were to gather, this time in a new sacred center, the synagogue, known in Hebrew as a Beit Knesset, a "place of gathering."

Since the impulse to assemble is inherent in our nature, we gather for just about everything: ball games, meetings, book clubs and dinner parties. Not all gatherings are sacred, but synagogue gatherings should be. When the Temple became the synagogue, it is as if the shitin moved from the place of sacrifice to the place of prayer: the synagogue sanctuary

These gatherings should be as important as the prayer they accompany. They "sanctify" and "celebrate" not just a personal moment of life-cycle exultation, but the entirety of life itself, the cosmic moment when we get to share consciousness with God.

So the next time someone passes you a Kiddush cup at such an event, steal some time to imagine four tiny holes below you; picture a moment, eons ago, when God hollowed them out and packed their earth together to proclaim human life. Then, think of it: Here we are, we humans, packed together still, but electrified with life and breathing — more like our Creator than the earth with which we are created. L'chaim, you will say, "to life!" — and you will really mean it this time.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York. E-mail him at: [email protected]


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