Reclaiming The Sacred

Kol Nidrei 5782/2021

“Rabbi, do you perform exorcisms?” One of the strangest questions I have ever been asked: do you perform exorcisms?  The caller was someone I knew well.  They learned that their new house, into which they just moved, had many years ago been host to a tragedy.  They didn’t think they had ghosts, but were searching for a Jewish way to clean their new home of old, sad, memories.  I listened, paused, and asked, “Does the house have a mezuzah?”  “We just moved in, Rabbi,” was the embarrassed reply.  A week later, I went to the new home, hammer in hand.  When I walked in, I did smell the aroma of the sage they burned as part of their private cleansing ritual.  They brought me their mezuzah, we affixed it to the doorpost of their house, said the blessings and celebrated proper ceremony. Do I perform exorcisms? No: I do consecrations.

Consecration, from the Latin: con:together; sacra:holy.  Consecration: coming together to mark something as sacred.  Consecrations, even if the English derives from Latin, are a Jewish thing: so many of our celebrations are we, a community, coming together, to mark something a sacred, as special, as kodesh, Hebrew for “holy”.  We consecrate our new houses and apartments with the mezuzah to demarcate them as sacred spaces.  We consecrate our newest students in our religious school, blessing the sacred start of their lifelong journey of Jewish study. As Shabbat commences, we proclaim the day “sacred” in the prayer called Kiddush, the “sanctification” of our holy day over the cup of wine.  When beloveds stand beneath the huppah for marriage, we call this ceremony kiddushin, a sacred event: we mark their love for each other as holy, elevated to the level of the Divine.  Consecration, recognizing what is holy, what is kodesh, is a Jewish concern.

Recognizing what is holy is so important to Judaism that we take pains to separate the sacred from the common.  Just as one Kiddush cup marks the onset of Shabbat, another serves to separate our holy day from the regular week ahead.  In our Saturday evening ceremony of Havdalah, we literally draw a line distinguishing the sacred Sabbath from the workaday week we welcome.  An act of work begins this brief ritual; we kindle a candle as the first labor of the new week.  Then, for the second time in 24 hours, we bless a cup of wine, savoring one last sweet sip of the sacred Shabbat.  At the ritual’s conclusion, we intone the words: hamavdil bein kodesh lechol, as we “separate the sacred from the common”.  This blessing has long been one of my favorites: as we say the words “hamavdil bein kodesh lechol/we separate the sacred from the common”, we extinguish the beautiful Havdalah candle in the wine of the Kiddush cup.  Extinguishing that candle is a sign that, in just six days, the sacred will again come to consume the common.  That which is holy is meant to triumph over the workaday regularity of our lives.  The promise of Havdalah is that, after a week of lighting our workaday fires, the sweet Kiddush cup of Shabbat wine will come to restore all that is sacred.

We come together this evening to restore all that is holy, to consecrate our lives this New Year.  In fact, it was in order to restore all that is holy that this sacred ritual of Yom Kippur came into existence.  Thousands of years ago, when our Temple stood in Jerusalem, its sacred altar was the site of the daily sacrifices of the Jewish people.  Endless offerings were placed upon that altar: thanksgiving sacrifices, sin offerings, bulls of atonement.  Every emotion of our ancestors, from gratitude through regret, was filtered through sacrifices turned to smoke on that altar.  After an entire year, that altar needed to be cleaned.  Yes, of the blood and fat and suet and such.  But more importantly, the altar needed to be cleansed of all the spiritual detritus it had accumulated: a little bit of Abraham’s guilt, some residue of Sarah’s gratitude, a thousand traces of joy and sorrow.  After a year of serving as the central location of all the sentiments of the Jewish people, the holy altar had accumulated more than its fair share of spiritual schmutz.[i]  Once a year, on the tenth of Tishrei, time came for a cleaning. This was a sacred renewal, a consecration: we call that day Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur comes to solve a very human problem: that which is sacred can often be overrun by the common.  Worse, all that is meant to be holy can sometimes be profaned.  This, alas, we have learned acutely over the past 18 months.  The very need for Yom Kippur can be summarized in three letters: W. F. H.  It took me a while, I admit, to learn the acronym WFH.  Already a few months into the pandemic, having logged a hundred hours on zoom, having purchased my first pair of sweatpants in nearly twenty years, I was certainly familiar with the concept of working from home.  But I’m the kind of guy who needs my kids to tell me what internet acronyms mean, from IRL to SMH.  So it took me many months of working from home to realize that that was the phrase represented by the letters WFH.  And, even though I was working from home because the COVID epidemic was worldwide, I hadn’t really taken the time to realize that so, too, was the phenomenon of Work From Home.

Work from home, exercise at home, cocktail parties from home, Seder from home.  Each stuck in our own spaces, we shared this experience.  It wasn’t just WFH, but LFH: living from home, all of life in one space. We lived endless acronyms: CFO, MMFB, RKWW, CWLTSSWFT: cooking from our office; managing money from our bedroom; raising kids while working; connecting with loved ones on the same screens we filed our taxes.  As home and work and labor and love became intertwined, we witnessed what George Costanza once famously described as “worlds colliding”[ii]: nearly everything we did, every day, for almost or over a year, happened in a singular space.  There was an unprecedented commingling of every aspect of our lives: I wrote emails from the same countertop where I folded laundry; I taught adult education classes from the comfy chair I play guitar; I led Shabbat services from the same dining room table my family ate three times every single day.  Formerly separable strands of work and leisure, home and outside, profession and family, all became so intermixed they sometimes seemed inseparable.  It was hard to keep anything common away from or outside of everything we hold sacred.

One Saturday night, early pandemic, I sat, strumming my guitar, at my dining room table.  It was time for Havdalah, to say goodbye to Shabbat.  On Zoom we sang the final blessing together: hamavdil bein kodesh lechol, drawing a line separating sacred from common.  We extinguished workaday candles in Sabbath wine.  As our ceremony ended, I realized: no such separation was coming any time soon.  Not during pandemic.  No sooner did I sing those words, extinguish that candle, sign off of zoom, then I was in the same space I would be… for months.  WFH and living only at home meant we had no separation whatsoever: every strand of our lives was interwoven tightly in a single space.  For some of us who live alone, this was incredibly, painfully, isolating.  Months passed without actual human presence.  For those of us who live with others, it meant the opposite: while ours was the fortune to be with loved ones, finding time for ourselves, or for our own thoughts, was difficult if not impossible.  In either case—with only one single space—Post-it-Notes, note pads, pens and pencils, lunch and laundry littered literally every corner of our homes.  All of life happening in one space, with no change, is no way to be.

I share this thought not to linger overlong on the trials of our pandemic past.  Rather, I have long been thinking that ours is a spiritual problem: the sacred spaces of our home have at best become the common room for all our mundane endeavors.  At worst, the proliferation of activities in which we partook while at home may have polluted those places.  Our comfy couches weren’t meant to be dirtied by data-driven documents.  Our kitchen islands weren’t designed to be desks.  Our bedrooms aren’t supposed to be the place for difficult conference calls.  Are our dining room tables intended to be sanctuaries?  Now that we can begin to imagine emerging from pandemic, returning to our world, we need to think about more than the world to which we return.  We need to pay attention to the homes we, finally, just might get to leave.  We need to reclaim those sacred spaces as our own.

The New Year cannot really start without spiritual renewal.  Ten days after Rosh HaShanah, our Holy of Holies required kippur, cleansing both physical and spiritual.  Yom Kippur marks the one day of the year on which the High Priest would enter the most sacred chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies.  On Yom Kippur his only job in that place was to pronounce the holy, on-every-other-day-ineffable, name of God.  Before the High Priest could commence this task, he first needed to set right his own affairs: וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ, the priest atoned for himself and for his Household, literally, “his home”.[iii]  For centuries, this great rite of renewal was the highlight of our sacred calendar.  Crowds gathered at the Temple to hear the High Priest atone; they watched in anxious anticipation as he entered the Holy of Holies to pronounce God’s true name.  With throngs dressed in white linen appropriate to a ceremony of renewal, with all the hopes for a new year, with the entire congregation assembled, Yom Kippur was the most special occasion even on our crowded Jewish calendar.  And then, after centuries, tragedy struck: the Temple was destroyed, the sacred Altar shattered.  When Yom Kippur arrived in the year 70, there was no Temple, there was no Holy of Holies, the Altar was reduced to rubble.  It was safe to assume, therefore, that there could be no Yom Kippur as well.

What could have been the end of our tradition was instead a transformation: we transformed ritual sacrifice into liturgies of worship; we replaced national renewal in the Temple with personal atonement in a synagogue.  And something fascinating replaced, for our Rabbis, the Altar of old.  In the time of the Talmud, in the wake of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Rabbis Eliezer and Yohanan taught: the entire time that the Sacred Temple stood, its Altar atoned for Israel; once that Altar was destroyed, every person’s table became their place of atonement.[iv]  Every person’s table became their place of atonement.  For our Rabbis of Old, our table, the place where we gather with closest friends and family, serves as our Holy of Holies.  Breaking bread, engaging in conversation, sharing gratitude for the food we eat, the time we share: these are, in Jewish tradition, holy acts.  Thus on Shabbat, at our table, we kindle lights just like the lamps that shone in our Jerusalem temple; we make kiddush, at our table,  over wine declaring the Sabbath a sacred event; we share challah, at our table,  like the showbread eaten by the priests in the Temple’s sacred precincts.  One central Altar for all Israel was replaced by each solitary table in every Jewish home.  Our homes are meant to be small sanctuaries; for thousands of years, our tables have been the replacement of our Altar.

If our homes are holy, if the tables around which we gather are sacred, then it is safe to say these spaces have accumulated more than their regular share of spiritual schmutz this past year.  We are not in a situation where we simply move the laptop, put the pile of papers elsewhere, and move forward as if nothing happened.  A simple ritual of Havdalah will not suffice.  COVID and quarantine have left spiritual stains on the sacred sanctuaries of our own homes.  On Yom Kippur, time comes for cleansing.  We cannot commence a New Year until we ritually renew our homes from the scars of this past year.  This renewal, this cleansing, is not an exorcism.  We cannot take the demons of COVID, the memories of quarantine, and banish them with incantations or incense.  Judaism doesn’t do exorcisms; we do consecrations.  Yom Kippur is our day of rededication.  We moderns should learn from our ancestors and renew our sacred spaces this day.  Yom Kippur’s ritual renewal has three simple stages: confession, cleansing, and consecration.

Before we clean and consecrate, we need to confess our shortcomings: this is what Aaron needed to do before even thinking of entering the holy of holies.  He needed to pronounce his sins out loud; he could only atone for himself and his home if, first, he admitted his problems.  That is work we need to do as well: before any cleaning can happen, we need to admit we have allowed our worlds to collide into a messy big bang we call our homes.  For our shortcomings in letting bedrooms become boardrooms, family rooms turn to sweaty exercise studios.  For the sins we committed before you, wittingly or unknowing, when we allowed work to permeate every corner of our home.  For, when every outside activity was moved inside to our sacred homes, failing to keep strong lines dividing sacred activity from workaday life.  We had no choice but to quarantine during COVID; today, we must admit that we nonetheless bear responsibility for failing to keep all that should have been sacred more distinct and distinguished.  We often became too enmeshed in the common to appreciate, to find time for, to create space for, all that is holy.

Admitting we have fallen short is the first step.  Then comes cleansing: we need to clean.  I’m not talking about relocating the assorted detritus of our work, about rags and disinfectant.  When Aaron cleansed the Altar,[v] he was publicly reminding himself and others about the special nature of the holy.  Yom Kippur marked the communal awareness of our sacred space.  Likewise, part of our cleansing needs to be our commitment to enjoying our homes as our homes, and not using every nook and cranny as a substitute for our office, as the locus for every mundane, dreary, task.  The Temple in Jerusalem had spaces for storage, rooms for eating, chambers for gathering, courtyards for community, and one spot so special that it was only used on the most holy of days.  Cleansing our homes isn’t sacrificing some goats to restore the sanctity of our dining rooms; it is sacrificing our habit of checking work email at the dinner table, reading reports while watching family movies, taking phone calls in every space available.  Part of cleaning is sorting; another aspect is putting things away.  We need to sort our work lives from the rest of our lives; we need to sort our common endeavors from our sacred activities: that begins at home. 

And, last, we must re-consecrate our homes as sanctuaries, as sacred spaces.  Even those of us who will always work from home in some fashion must re-claim the dining room table for shared meals, the living room for just that: living.  How do we reclaim our sacred spaces, amidst COVID, consecrate our homes?  Marking space as sacred is not so simple as hanging a mezuzah if that’s something you’ve let lapse.  Our reclamation this year looks different.  If your favorite armchair for reading turned into your laptop space, then take a day, read a book in that chair, and reclaim it for the sacred joy of a leisurely read.  If your living room became your yoga studio, move the mats out, and bring in some people for a board game or a movie night.  If your dining room table became your desk, then, after finding a new spot for WFH, invite over friends and family for a communal meal to rededicate that space.  Maybe even have a dinner party every Saturday night for a month so you and your dining room table know you mean business.  Even better, let you and your dining room table know you mean business about banishing business and restoring sacred space to the altar of your home.  It will take intentional work on our part to shift out of COVID habits.  Separation of space matters as much as any Havdalah separating holy from common.  To recapture our homes as sacred spaces, we must intentionally limit the places where we engage in our mundane affairs.  Only then can we restore the sanctity of our homes, only then can we truly re-consecrate our homes.

 

 It was not easy to adjust to quarantine and COVID.  We shouldn’t be surprised that it will be difficult to adjust to coming out of this crisis. We come together this evening—together in this sanctuary or together in the redefined sacred space of our internet—to celebrate all that is sacred: ourselves, our potential, our ability to transform, this year of promise ahead of us.  And part of the work we need to do is not only to commit ourselves to the sacred, but to reclaim the sacred  for ourselves. We do not need to exorcise any ghosts of COVID; we do need to reconsecrate our homes as small sanctuaries, as the most sacred of spaces in which we dwell.  With the pandemic still raging, and so much uncertain, this cleansing, this reorientation, this reclaiming, will not be easy.  It may not even—heaven forfend!—be permanent.  Yet, if in this coming year we go back again to lockdown to WFH and living-every-aspect-of-our-existence from home, our shrines still need their annual cleansing.  Yom Kippur is here, and it’s time to see to the purification of ourselves, our relationships, and our homes.  May we attend to that sacred work, may we again relish in our sacred spaces and beloved people, and may we find the renewal from both to face the challenges of another year.

________________________

[1] This, the lesson of my teacher, Rabbi David Sperling.  The same idea is also captured Gerstenberger, Leviticus, to 16:14:

…transgressions against the commandments, the community of faith was continually heaping guilt upon itself; and because God dwelled in his house in the midst of this flawed and guilt-ridden people, some portion of the substance of that sin was also bout to come into contact with and taint the sanctuary despite all cautionary measures.

[2] Seinfeld, Season 7, Episode 8, “The Pool Guy”

[3] Leviticus 16:6.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 55a.

וְהַמַּאֲרִיךְ עַל שֻׁלְחָנוֹ: דִּלְמָא אָתֵי עַנְיָא וְיָהֵיב לֵיהּ. דִּכְתִיב: ״הַמִּזְבֵּחַ עֵץ שָׁלוֹשׁ אַמּוֹת גָּבֹהַּ״, וּכְתִיב: ״וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלַי זֶה הַשֻּׁלְחָן אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי ה׳״, פָּתַח בְּמִזְבֵּחַ וְסִיֵּים בְּשֻׁלְח .

רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר !

דְּאָמְרִי תַּרְוַיְיהוּ: כׇּל זְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ קַיָּים — מִזְבֵּחַ מְכַפֵּר עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַכְשָׁיו, שֻׁלְחָנוֹ שֶׁל

[5] N.b. first Aaron made atonement for himself “and his house”.  Lev 16:17.

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