By Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Each year at this season, we reflect on our lives over the past year. We consider our successes, achievements, and blessings since our last High Holy Day season and contemplate how we can overcome our shortcomings and failures in the year that lies ahead. In any year, this work, which our tradition calls cheshbon hanefesh (an accounting of our souls), is challenging work. This year, it’s more challenging than we might have ever expected. For half of 5780, we’ve been unable to live our lives in the ways that are familiar to us. Our bedrooms have become our yoga studios. Our kitchens have become our children’s classrooms. And our dining rooms have become our offices. Where, then, is our synagogue?
The earliest rabbis asked this same question 2,000 years ago. When the Roman Empire occupied Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, our ancestors lost their central place of worship. Jewish life until then relied upon a central shrine for Jewish worship, first the Mishkan (the portable wilderness sanctuary), and then the Bet HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Without that place, how could Jews pray together? As my colleague Rabbi Elyse Goldstein writes, “We are the inheritors of their answer: Our home would become our mikdash m’at, a sanctuary in miniature, a holy place. Our current challenge is to create a sacred space at home while we are in front of our computers, on Zoom.”
One of the things I love most about Judaism is our ability to adapt. Our tradition is thousands of years old and since its beginning, Judaism has been about adaptation. Everything we know about Jewish life today was born out of chaos and destruction. The looming occupation of the Roman Empire and their eventual destruction of Judaism’s central shrine birthed synagogue life as we know it. While we can’t imagine yet what Jewish life might look like when this pandemic is in our rearview mirrors, we can look to our past for guidance on how to create holiness in a new space, this time our own homes.
One of my greatest moments of reflection each High Holy Day season is entering our sanctuary after dedicated volunteers and staff have taken down the wall, moved the bimah and ner tamid, and set hundreds of chairs. Standing in that enormous, empty space for the first time each year, I begin to envision what it will mean for me to stand before all of you and guide you through our holiest season. This year, I have to do that differently. All of us do. We long to be in person together, to sing in harmony, and hug those we haven’t seen in a while, sometimes since the last High Holy Day season.
This year, we will gather together safely, albeit from our own homes and in an online setting. “This year,” writes Rabbi Goldstein, “we have a unique opportunity to create a sacred space in our home—a mikdash m’at—for the High Holy Days and beyond.” I want to share some suggestions with you about how to make your home a holy space as you begin to prepare for this challenging and unusual High Holy Day season:
- Choose your prayer space carefully in advance by spending a few moments of individual contemplation or family discussion. Don’t wait for the last moment.
- Once you have chosen your space, say a blessing or kavannah (intention) over it to mark it as your mikdash m’at. There are texts below to guide you.
- Consider what chair or seat you’ll use. Put a cushion or festive pillow on it or drape it with a tallit, a special piece of fabric, or a scarf to transform it from its usual purpose.
- You may be using the same computer you use for work. Change where you place it to transform its use from a work space to a contemplative space. Use a tablecloth or flowers to consecrate the space as holy.
- If possible, sit back from your computer so that you are watching it, rather than manipulating it. Consider connecting it to your television so it feels less like a work device.
- Find meaningful objects to grace your space. Consider holiday objects like candlesticks. On Rosh Hashanah, perhaps a Kiddush cup and apples and honey. On Yom Kippur, you might surround yourself with cherished mementos, family heirlooms, or photos of friends and loved ones. If you own a shofar, place it where it’s visible.
- Try to limit or disconnect distractions. Put away your cell phone and disable notifications on your email or other programs so that you can be fully present during the service.
- Wear clothing that makes you feel as if you are entering a spiritual space. It’s easy for us to be more relaxed when worshipping at home. What clothing will make you feel more connected to your worship? Kippah and tallit are welcome if they help you connect spiritually.
- Our liturgy will be shared on the screen, so you don’t need a machzor (a High Holy Day prayer book), but if one will help you to feel connected, members may borrow one from Bet Ha’am by emailing Chris Skidgel at chris @ bethaam.org.
- Finally, many synagogues and Jewish homes have decorative artwork rooted in text to center us called a sh’viti, sometimes identified with the word mizrach (east), the image of a seven-branched menorah, or some other Jewish symbol. We have taken inspiration from this tradition and Bet Ha’am member Bonnie Spiegel will be providing us all with a piece of artwork that invokes our logo and Exodus 25:8, “Va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” You will receive this artwork digitally so that you can have it printed and hung on the wall in the sacred space you create, linking all of our homes to each other.
There is a lot that will feel different this year, but in all this newness and discomfort, there are opportunities for us to deepen our connections to each other in a new way. In other years, you might have gathered with family and friends for holiday meals. Consider how you can connect with those folks before or after our worship. In the past, you may have been able to leave the dishes in the sink before coming to the synagogue. If they would be in sight as you worship, think about your schedule for the evening so that you’ve wrapped up that work before it’s time to welcome the new year.
There is no doubt this year will feel different, even strange, but it will, with proper preparation and intention, also feel remarkably holy. I am certain. L’shanah tovah u’metukah, may you and those you love have a happy, healthy, and sweet new year.
Verses and blessings to help create your sacred space/mikdash m’at:
- Numbers 24:5
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel!
2. Birkat Habayit (Home Blessing)
בְּזֶה הַשַּׁעַר לֹא יָבוֹא צַעַר
בְּזֹאת הַדִּירָה לֹא תָבוֹא צָרָה
בְּזֹאת הַדֶּלֶת לֺא תָבוֹא בֶּהָלָה
בְּזֹאת הַמַּחְלָקָה לֺא תָבוֹא מַחְלוֺקֶת.
בְּזֶה הַמָּקוֺם תְּהִי בְרָכָה וְשָׁלוֺם
B’zeh ha-sha’ar lo yavo tza’ar.
B’zot ha-dirah lo tavo tzarah
B’zot ha-delet lo tavo behalah
B’zot hamachlakah lo tavo machloket
B’zeh ha-makom t’hi b’rachah v’shalom.
Let no sorrow come through this gate.
Let no trouble come in this dwelling.
Let no fright come through this door.
Let no conflict come to this area.
Let there be blessing and peace in this place.
3. Exodus 20:21:
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ
B’chol makom asher azkir et sh’mi avo eilecha uveirachticha.
In every place where My name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.
4. Exodus 3:5
כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃
Ki ha-makom asher atah omed alav adamat kodesh hu.
Indeed, the place on which you stand is holy ground.
5. Psalms 121:8
יְֽהוָ֗ה יִשְׁמָר־צֵאתְךָ֥ וּבוֹאֶ֑ךָ מֵֽ֝עַתָּ֗ה וְעַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
Adonai yishmar tzeitecha u-vo’eicha mei-atah v’ad olam.
Adonai will guard your going and coming, now and forever.
6. Pirke Avot 1:4
יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם:
Y’hi veitecha veit va’ad l’chachamim, v’heivei mitabeik ba’afar ragleihem, v’heivei shoteh b’tzama et d’vareihem.
Let your house be a house of meeting for the wise; sit at their feet, and drink in their words.
7. The last line of the blessing said at havdalah, the service separating Shabbat from weekday, can be used to “separate” this sacred space:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמַבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל
Baruch atah Adonai, hamavdil bayn kodesh lechol.
Blessed are You Adonai, who separates between holy and ordinary.
8. The traditional prayer for healing can be used to “heal” a space too:
ברוך אתה ה’, רופא כל בשר, ומפליא לעשות
Baruch atah Adonai, rofeh kol basar, u’maflee la’asot.
Praised are You Adonai, Healer of all flesh, doing wonders.