D’var Torah: Parshat Balak and Creating a Holy Space
Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael! How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel! (Bemidbar 24:5)
These famous words were first uttered by the evil prophet Bilaam in this week’s parsha. Hired to curse the people of Israel, as he looked out upon their camp Bilaam was compelled instead to pronounce the blessing that is now said upon entering every synagogue. Many scholars ponder what Bilaam saw that led him to make this proclamation. What made the Israelite camp a makom kadosh, a holy space?
A holy space may be defined as a place where the divine presence is concentrated. It means that, for some reason, conditions exist that invite God in. In our tradition, there are several possible reasons why this might occur. It is unclear if some places are inherently holy, or if there are places where God is more accessible, or if a space is rendered holy by the actions people take there that transform it.
The Talmud, in Tractate Berachot, tells of a conversation between Rabbi Yose and Elijah the prophet. Rabbi Yose has entered the ruins of a synagogue to pray. He and Elijah discuss God’s reaction when Jews assemble in a synagogue and say the Barchu (the call to prayer). Elijah tells Rabbi Yose that God “shakes His head and says: Happy is the king who is thus praised in this house!” The point is that if Jews assemble as a community to do something like learn or pray, God cannot help but join the community, thereby transforming the location into a holy space.
For many people Camp Ramah, right here in Palmer, is a makom kadosh. Not just because we engage in tefilot or study. We believe that the way we interact with each other can create the conditions for God’s presence. When we gather our community of about 1,000 strong each summer, we are creating a place where campers and staff alike feel something unique and special. Whether it is at Havdalah or on a morning canoe ride in the mist, there are moments when we feel that God is accessible.
When Bilaam surveyed the Israelite camp, he saw not mere physical tents, but a community living according to the values of Judaism. It was what the people did that transformed an ordinary space into a makom kadosh. When we take the right actions, God cannot help but join us. This summer at camp, our goal is to create just such a community. Shabbat Shalom.