In Search of a Spiritual Home

Lawrence A. Hoffman

From Reform Judaism, Fall 1994
Reprinted with permission.

Picture a map of North America: a web of crisscrossed lines called interstate highways, perhaps. Or is it the natural network of lakes and rivers that feed our cities and townships? Maps are simply lines joining dots, but whether the dots are points on a weather front, cities with a crack problem, or elevations over 2000 feet depends on the mapmaker. And we are all mapmakers who carry around inside our heads a virtual atlas that we consult with regularity as we make our way through the spaces of our lives.

Among the world’s maps is a map of the sacred. Some sites seem inherently sacred — like the burning bush where Moses stopped, not in scientific detachment (just to marvel at a natural phenomenon) but because he was drawn to its sacred ambiance. Or think of Jacob, awakened from his desert sleep by a dream of angels traversing a ladder joining heaven to earth. “Surely God is in this place,” he concluded, “And I did not know it.” These places are holy because God already dwells there.

Then there are natural miracles like the Grand Canyon or the redwood forests, which modern Jews might call holy, not because they think that God is literally present there, but because such places testify to God’s creative splendor.

Other places, finally, are historically sacred. Would we care about Masada if zealots hadn’t did there? But they did, so we make pilgrimage to that site. For years, the Israeli Defense Forces marched recruits up to Masada to internalize the message of “Never again!”

Our sacred history thus makes ordinary sites sacred by the residue of memory. Pass a place where miracles one happened and Jewish tradition demands a benediction; this is, after all, where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal or where Judah Maccabee defeated Antiochus; so we who pass by take sacred stock: “Blessed is God who wrought miracles for our ancestors in those days.” More modern times give us Auschwitz, where God certainly was not, but where we bridle at the thought that it might be desanctified by governmental edict. Some twenty years ago, a German travel poster advertised tourist junkets to “the rolling hills of Dachau.” Rolling hills indeed! Who can resist a prayer standing within the once-upon-a-time teeming Jewish ghettos of Venice, Prague, and Krakow, or just outside the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam — surely a site as historically sacred as Mt. Carmel where Elijah prevailed?


Inherent sacred sites that loom larger than life don’t need markers — who can miss the Grand Canyon, after all? — but the ordinary terrain where God abides may easily be missed without a visible reminder that God is here. So we construct markers on historical sites — like the sign leading up to the Dome of the Rock, where the Temple once stood. “Holy Place,” it says, “Jewish law forbids Jews to go there.” A self-appointed elder from Jerusalem’s Orthodox sects screams out the warning to the hordes of people who pass by anyway because they do not accept the validity of that law — but at least (the elders must think) they have been warned.

Curiously, a marker for a site may itself become holy. In the 1940s a veteran Israeli tourist guide noticed that his group had become weary while walking from one famous spot to another. He therefore stopped beside a large boulder and proclaimed: “In the war against Rome, a mighty farmer nicknamed Samson was at work up the road a ways. Upon hearing that the Romans were besieging the Temple, he picked up this rock, vowing to carry it all the way to Jerusalem where it would fortify the city’s walls. He got this far and met a messenger who told him he was too late: the Temple was in flames. In his shock he dropped the boulder where you see it, and died.”

The guide had fabricated the entire account! Not a word of it was true. Nonetheless, ten years later he came upon the same spot and found an Arab child pleading, “Mister, take off your shoes; this is the rock of the mighty Samson!” By the 1960s the government installed an official signpost: Makom Kadosh, “Warning: this is a sacred site; behave reverently.”

Thus a marker for a site may even generate its own marker. The sign announcing Samson’s Rock is a marker for a marker, namely, the rock, which is itself a marker for a place that someone thought was sacred.

Our penchant for sacred sites thus alternates between our love of the sites and our fascination with their markers. We can speak then of marker fascination and of site fascination. Site-fascinated people love to visit places that are holy, but don’t much care to know the story of what makes them so. Marker fascination is the opposite extreme: the practice of spending all our time reading marker signs, and none at all viewing the site. Marker-fascinated people visit shrines but keep their faces buried in Bibles or guide literature, using these as marker books to explain what they are viewing.

Most of us, however, need both site and marker. Sacred places thus cry out for road signs that rehearse their tale. Age-old cemeteries have lavish gates that explain what lies within, and the gravestones preserve the identities of the human beings who now lie buried there.

Sacred Art and Dedications

Since markers matter, we ask artists to capture the essence of our sacred places. But art itself evokes the sacred, so that we come to a final kind of sacred site. Some places are holy neither inherently nor by virtue of their history. They are our own artistic creations that just happen to be built in one place rather than another, but which then make a place holy by virtue of their history. They are our own artistic creations that just happen to be built in one place rather than another. But which then make a place holy by virtue of their being there. The best example is Solomon’s Temple. As the Bible tells us, God had to make the divine presence dwell there after the Temple was constructed. The Temple was only potentially a marker of the fact that someday the place would become holy, when, that is, God moved in.

It is precisely because of our own cultural artifacts, as beautiful as they may be, constitute only potential sacrality that we insist on dedicating them. No one dedicates the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. We know they are sacred. But Solomon had to dedicate his Temple to invite God’s presence to transform the potential holiness into the real thing; and the prophets remind us that if worshipers there act unethically, God may well leave, rendering what is left an empty shell. All the more so, our own buildings which inhabit suburban street corners or convenient hills demand dedication ceremonies that invite God in.

In sum, our map of sacred space contains sacred sites and their marker; and then markers for markers. Some sites are holy because they suggest the inherent presence of God; history confers sacrality on other places; but finally, we human beings dare to build sacred markers, generally building of some sort or other that we then dedicate to make sure God really comes there. Sacred maps thus begin as the reported tremors of God’s presence in nature or in history, but at our best we emulate God by creating sacred sites of our own. Our maps of the sacred are thus a human recognition of the traces of God’s presence, on the one hand, and a road map of the human spirit at its finest on the other.

Sacred Space and Sacred Stories: A Modern Pilgrimage

Sacred space elicits sacred stories. For many, “Egypt,” “Sinai,” and “Israel” are merely the neutral names of places; for Jews, they are the chapter titles of the ancient (and still unfolding) tale that makes us who we are. Even natural sites develop associated stories of the great and fabulous — the Lock Ness monster, for example, or the “biography” of a massive redwood stump where a trail guide has labeled the rings to illustrate its 2,000-year-old history. And the story never ends — each and every pilgrim adds another layer to the multiple associations of the things that happened here. That is why we take pictures on our trips: not only to remember the place we have seen, but to regale our friends about the unique events that happened specifically to us when we were there.

We are all pilgrims on this earth, hoping that the chronicle we inscribe in time will be more than just a “tale of sound and fury told by and idiot.” So we consult the sacred stories of our pat, hoping to find revealed there the purpose of life itself. Pilgrims journey to far-off places precisely because they represent real life: They provide a model narrative for the life we call our own, and ultimate context in which our own meager years on earth become significant.

Jewish spirituality thus consists largely of finding the tangents where our own personal story (like puzzle piece in time) fits precisely into the contours of our people’s sacred history. Our lives are like the children’s game, “connect the dots.” But the dots that constitute the several episodes from childhood to old age are part of a larger picture that began taking shape in dots that existed so far back we can know them only in their reverberations through the ages — in part, by celebrating sacred times (like Passover), and in part, by visiting the spots that mark where things once happened. Sacred places thus preserve and rekindled historical memory on which we depend if we are ever to connect the dots that we know personally with those that came before us.

Moreover, we must still project the end toward which our lives are heading. The dots of our lives have no predetermined shape. They are left to our imagination, and our worst fear is that we shall look back and find no pattern at all, nothing even to justify the miracle we call birth, and nothing also to give comfort at the moment before death. By fitting our lives into a larger sacred tale, we adopt also that tale’s end as our own.

Sacred sites thus come with sacred tales that are primeval dots upon the landscape of our earthly odyssey. The grandeur of the human enterprise comes through as we relive the stories of our places, making them our own. And when we do, we step out of empty time and neutral space into a meaningful pattern that informs our vision of who we are, whence we came, and whither we are going. No wonder the Torah asks us to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem — our not-so-subtle spiritual center, and the tangible witness to greatness and to tragedy and to hope beyond despair: the Jewish people’s tale that becomes each Jewish pilgrim’s tale as well. We return home knowing that we can matter just as Ruth or Isaiah did, that we too can dance and sing and taste life’s goodness, that our very lives can become a land that flows with milk and honey.

The Sacred Pilgrimage of Life

The Jewish metaphor for the ultimate curse is homelessness, exile, wandering in a wilderness all our lives. Blessing, then, is being in touch with out sacred center, knowing a place that we call home. On the grand scale of things, that home is Eretz Yisrael. On a lesser scale, we manufacture our own sacred places which then become our homes because they are outfitted with reminders of the larger story of our people. First and foremost are our literal homes, the houses where we live. In the backyard we build a sukah, as if we were the ancient farmers harvesting Israel’s autumn crop; springtime gives us Pesach, where our very table becomes Egypt and then Exodus and then freedom. Shabbat itself begins with the Kiddush, and its gentle reminder that this day is zekher liyetsi’at mitsrayim (“a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt”). Around our walls and on our shelves stand tangible reminders of the Jewish story that we make our own — a menorah, perhaps, or a piece of Jewish art transforming bare walls into markers of the site we now call sacred.

The Synagogue as Sacred Center

And then there are synagogues, the sacred center of Jewish community. The traditional minyan is a microcosm for the Jewish people in its entirety. The weekly Torah portion rehearses our sacred story, and the commentary in the form of sermon or d’var Torah explores the point at which that narrative of the past becomes our story of the present too. As we listen, we connect the dots of our lives, according to the model of the Torah portion of the week.

Cemeteries too are sacred, as are specific spots where Jewish history once unfolded, places where, perhaps, we almost died but didn’t — more proof of the miracle of Jewish life, the reasons to find meaning in the piece of time we call our own as we unfold our tiny tale into the grander scheme of things that some call history.

Life is a pilgrimage, and unending search for a home, and a series of stops along the way, each a sacred place, because in each the story of our people meets the story of our selves. God becomes present then around the kitchen table, at the bedside of our children, in the vacant lot that our grandparents once called home, or on Friday night when we too greet Shabbat with Lecha Dodi, the very song that once hallowed the outskirts of Tsefat and now hallows pockets of Jewish communities gathered worldwide.

When our life is over, we return again to hallowed ground, the final spot we learn to know as home. If we have consciously sought out the sacred in our lives, we may be blessed by knowing as we die that we did not live in exile, that our homes and synagogues recapitulated the story of our people, that we knew the Land of Israel first-hand as our home. Others were tourists, never knowing sacred from profane, ever in search of other people’s stories, the strange and marvelous places that mattered only for a random two-week temporary stop-off called vacation. Not us. We look back upon a sacred journey that unites time and space, the time of our own lives and the spaces of our people’s narrative.

If God dwells anywhere, it is there: where sacred place and sacred story intersect with the emerging picture of our own lives. To be religious is to aspire to a life that is a pilgrimage, not a tour. As pilgrims, we may know that the map that matters most is the map of the sacred, reminding us that even our personal life-tale is part of a magnificent space-time tapestry that is fathomed by a mind much greater than our own, a mind we know as God.