Again and again, the Torah and prophetic books remind us that ancient Israelite culture believed in concentric circles of divinity. In their creation of nomadic society, which eventually settled in the land that we now know as Israel, they worked to centralize political power and religious practice – two things deeply connected for the Israelites. This happened by creating spaces where one could literally and figuratively “get closer” to God. For example, those who lived within the boundaries of the nomadic Israelite camp were closer than those who didn’t, those who gathered at the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) were closer than those further away, and the few who were permitted to enter the tent were closer than those on the outside. The same was true with the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. Those who lived within the kingdom were closer than those who were outside, those who lived in Jerusalem were closer than those who didn’t, those who ascended the stairs of the Temple Mount were closer than those who remained at the bottom, and those who entered the Temple were closer still. As these concentric circles of divinity and sanctity were created, so too were the locations that devout, pious, and influential Israelites sought out. The closer they were to the center, the closer they were to God and the center of who they were as a community.
This concept continued through to modern times, in part giving rise to the Jewish hope and longing for a return to homeland, Jerusalem, and rebuilding of the Temple. It is also a concept rejected by the early reformers. To them, the idea that they would want to be anywhere other than the land in which they were born felt disingenuous. No longer did they long for an ancient homeland because they found a new one in Europe. No longer did they need to travel to Jerusalem, they could influence their society by becoming emancipated citizens of their new countries. No longer did they need to travel to the remains of a long-destroyed Temple, they believed that God could be found with them in their new temples.
The early reformers, like our ancestor Jacob, realized that God and continuity of community could be found almost anywhere. God became more present with ritual, family, practice, and vision. When they found locations with these important ingredients, they established physical reminders – monuments and synagogues. When Jacob was cast out of his home (albeit, for him, it was clearly a consequence of his negative interactions with his brother Esau) he found himself in an unfamiliar and dangerous wilderness. Having no choice but to stop for the night to rest, he placed a stone under his head and fell asleep. In his dreams, he saw angels descending and ascending to heaven and God came to him and reiterated the promise made to his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. “The ground on which you lie,” God said, “I give to you and your offspring. Your descendants will spread to the four winds, and all the people of earth will be blessed through you. I am with you wherever you go. I will not leave you” (Genesis 28:13-15). To mark this moment, Jacob establishes a monument, anointing the stone he used as a pillow and names the place “Beth-El,” the House of God. He remarks, “How full of awe is this place. God was in this place, and I did not know it.”
Jacob and the creators of Reform Judaism teach us that God, holiness, and meaning can be found even in the most unlikely of places. Though our Judaism is based on the practices and beliefs of the ancient Israelites, we no longer need concentric circles of divinity and holiness. God is present wherever we are, wherever we establish ourselves, and wherever we find blessings.
This point is no more proven to me than during our worship here at Temple Jeremiah. I firmly believe that I have the best seat in the house during our services. Whereas many people would believe that more “important stuff” of our services happen closer to our ark and bima, I believe that it is just the opposite. When I am able to look out into our congregation, I see proof of holiness, blessing, and meaning. Just this past Shabbat I witnessed multiple examples. I saw a husband comfort his wife during Mi Shebeirach with a caring hand on her shoulder, and their son do the same. I saw a woman become so moved by an upbeat Mi Chamocha tune, that her hands couldn’t help but start dancing in her lap. I saw a mother find her own calm in the calm of her daughter, about to become Bat Mitzvah. I saw a father adjust his young son’s tie and help him follow along in their shared prayer book. I saw choir members put weeks of work and practice into becoming Shlichei Tzibur (prayer leaders). I saw middle schoolers make the safe spaces of our temple into a place where they had ownership over their own Jewish experiences. I saw friends cross rooms to say hello to each other, and members introduce themselves to first-time visitors.
Everywhere I looked, I saw pieces of God and holiness. It didn’t matter how close or far we were from the ark and Torah.
Every time I saw something, I was reminded: “God is in this place, even if we don’t know it.”
Like Jacob and the reformers, we have established our home here at Jeremiah, not in order to find God, but because we’ve already found God amongst ourselves. Even when the world around us looks bleak, even when we feel as if we are lost in the wilderness, all we have to do is to dream and to look around us. We might be surprised to find what was always there.