Take off your shoes,
for the place on which you stand
is holy ground.”
[1]

 

This is God’s command to Mosheh from the burning bush.

Rabbi J.H. Hertz comments on this:

“Every spot where God manifests Himself is holy ground.”  [2]

I’ve been in “holy places.” “Holy” not necessarily because they were used for religious or ritual purposes, but because they were places in which people turned their minds to God or, as we might also say, towards God’s Presence. 

Sometimes, it seems that God makes a place “holy.” Forests or fields, for example, seem to have an innate peacefulness and purity. I remember visiting the Anza-Borrego desert (a California state park) many years ago. I felt it there, too.

I have occasionally felt this in the presence of a religious or spiritual teacher, as have others.
I had the chance to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi z”l several times in different settings. When he was before the audience, I felt as if I was meditating.
There’s a Hasidic/Yiddish folk song, in which going to see the Kotsker Rebbe is equated with making a pilgrimage (necessarily on foot) to the Beit (beis) Hamikdash (hamikdesh in the transliteration):

“Kayn kotsk furt men nit,
Kayn kotsk gayt men.
Vayl kotsk iz dokh bimkoym hamikdesh (2)
Kayn kotsk miz men oyle-reygl zayn…

To Kotsk we do not ride,
To Kotsk we walk.
Because Kotsk is a sacred place (lit.: in place of the Mikdesh/Temple) (2)
To Kotsk we must go on foot…” [3]

“Bimkoym hamikdesh” — in place of the Temple because the Divine Presence which was felt in the Temple could be felt when in the presence of the Kotsker Rebbe (and other Hasidic rebbes), too.

In these and similar examples, the holiness of the place or person is present before we are.

These might be places where God “causes His Name to dwell.”

There are other holy places, though, that we (in a sense) create.

Many times I’ve experienced it in places where some form of meditation was practiced. Entering the room, I could feel the deep, peaceful silence. I’d begin to calm down, my thoughts would begin to become quiet. Physical tensions would begin to relax or be released. 

I used to meditate in Christian Science Reading Rooms. People aren’t supposed to talk in them, or read anything other than the prescribed religious literature (quotations from the Bible with selected readings from the writings of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy). Christian Scientists are expected to renew their spiritual thinking by reading such selections daily. Best of all is if they’re read in a CS Reading Room. The place where the reading is done is pervaded by that spiritual quiet.

I also remember visiting what was then called “B’nai Or House” in Philadelphia. It was the home of the organization, founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, that later evolved into the Jewish Renewal movement. There was one room in the house in which words were never spoken out loud. Only silent prayer and spiritual reading were done there. It was pervaded by that same spiritual quiet that I’d felt in meditation centers and CS Reading Rooms. 

In these examples, God “manifests Himself” as a result of people opening themselves to him in prayer, meditation, spiritual study, etc.  While this point in Torah says that the place is holy because God is manifesting in the bush, the rest of Torah is about a holy place that is created by the worship people do.

We might call these places where we invite God’s Name to dwell.

The Mishkan and later, the Temples, are made holy by Israel’s sincere recognition of God.  Idol worship — especially in the Temple — or desecration of the places and objects involved in worship, are great sins, because they deny or even reject God. The whole world is supposed to benefit from Israelite worship. If we obstruct that, the whole world suffers. 

Yet, I have rarely, if ever, felt this holiness in a synagogue.

I couldn’t have expressed it when I was young; I wouldn’t have known how, or what to say. But I sensed that something was “missing.” Perhaps it’s better stated that something was obscuring the holiness that should otherwise be experienced there. I came to understand it better when I began working for synagogues as a cantor (and later, as a rabbi). Then, I saw behind the scenes; the political machinations, the unkindness, the jockeying for power. 

I remember when I first saw this. I was appalled; outraged. I wanted to write a book about it called “The Captive Synagogue.”

I haven’t found that this is limited to any single branch of Judaism. In fact, I haven’t found it limited to Judaism at all. Even organizations devoted to philanthropic works, or the arts, or other idealistic endeavors, I’ve seen tainted by human motivations.

But the synagogue and Jewish worship are of special concern to me.

We can make the synagogue אדמת–קודש –– holy ground; a holy place. We need only take our shoes off.

“Our shoes” — meaning any sense of separation from God.

Our sincere closeness to God will manifest as thoughts and feelings of loving God and being kind to people.

Then, the synagogue itself will be filled with a glowing light burning like a fire, but without being consumed. 

Walking in, we will be filled with the special quiet of being close to God.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Sh’mot/Ex. 3:5
[2] Hertz, Rabbi J.H.; Pentateuch and Haftorahs (2nd. ed.); p. 214
[3] Mlotek, Chana & Slobin, Mark, Eds. (2007). Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, in cooperation with YIVO. p.209
see also:
http://www.jewishfolksongs.com
In the early ’80’s, I had the great privilege of attending a workshop on Yiddish folk music given by the great Ruth Rubin at the Steinberg Center of the AJC. She sang this song there. I never forgot it.