There’s No Place Like. . .
By Rav Uri C. Cohen
What is the ultimate place according to the Torah?
There are three approaches to this question. The first understands “place” as a framework; the second, as a physical place; and the third, as an internal focus.
Hashem: The Framework of the Universe
The first type of ultimate “place” is none other than Hashem. We refer to Hashem as HaMakom on a variety of occasions, including the seder (“Baruch HaMakom Baruch Hu”) and a shiva (“HaMakom yinachem etkhem”).<1> Why do we call Hashem “the Place”? Chazal themselves address this issue:
“[Yaakov] came upon the place (makom)” (Beresheet 28:11). Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Ami: Why do we rename God and call Him “the Place”? Because He is the place of the world, and His world is not His place.<2>
What is the significance of the statement that Hashem is the place of the world? Rav Soloveitchik explains in an often-overlooked passage:
Thus, the Jews gave God the remarkable attribute of makom, place. The Lord is envisaged as the M’komo shel olam, the repository of the universe. What is this attribute of “place” for a God Who is infinite and omnipresent? By intuiting the attribute of makom, the halakhah revealed to the world a revolutionary concept of God. He is not transcendent, mysterious and unapproachable, but our immediate Companion. We live in God and experience Him in His full immediacy. As the [resident] experiences his home, as man intuits space, so does the Jew intuit God. He does not arrive at Him through philosophical speculation or metaphysical inference, but he meets Him through experience and intuition. HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Hu mekomo shel olam, v’ein ha’olam m’komo. God is the repository of the universe. All is contained in Him. He does not repose in me; He is not just one phase of my world perspective; He envelops all.<3>
A seemingly simple quip about Hashem turns out to be a profound theological statement.<4> In this sense, Hashem is the ultimate place.
The Beit HaMikdash: Physical Place Supreme
The second type of ultimate place is the Beit HaMikdash, whose predecessor the Mishkan is first mentioned in this week’s parashah. Several times in Sefer Devarim, the Torah refers to the Beit HaMikdash as “HaMakom asher yivchar Hashem Elokekha — the Place that Hashem your God will choose.”<5> On the simplest level, it is logical to call it “the Place,” since it was the one obligatory destination for the three-times-a-year pilgrimage.
Beyond that, however, the Beit HaMikdash is unique in the nature of its kedushat makom. On two occasions earlier in Sefer Sh’mot, a place is described as having kedushah. At the burning bush, Hashem tells Moshe to remove his shoes, “for the place where you are standing is holy” (3:5). Then at Har Sinai, He commands the people, “Cordon off the mountain and make it holy” (19:23). But in both those cases, the place loses its kedushah afterwards. Rav Alex Israel elaborates:
The kedushat makom is temporary; it vanishes as God’s manifest intensity departs from the vicinity. In other words, both at the burning bush and at Mt. Sinai, God’s presence creates a territorial sanctity. In one, man is invited to join God; in the other, man is restricted from advancing due to the intensity of the holiness. And yet, in both cases, the sanctity of place, the kedushat makom is impermanent and transitory. As God leaves, the kedushah leaves as well. There is no residual kedushah.<6>
Even the makom of the Mishkan would lose its kedushah every time B’nei Yisrael traveled in the midbar. As Dr. Amos Barde’a puts it:
When the Israelites broke camp, even the Holy of Holies, the most sanctified place, entered only by the high priest in a state of sanctity and purification, and at that only on the Day of Atonement, instantly became merely “dust of the earth,” sand of the desert. This spacial shifting of holiness recurred thirty-eight times in the course of forty years, and was supposed to impress upon the people during their years of wandering the principle that sanctity of place is not immanent to the place; rather, it goes by the word of the Lord, and only by the word of the Lord does sanctity attach to a specific place, with all the obligations and prohibitions that follow from it.<7>
The only physical place that never lost its kedushah was — you guessed it — Yerushalayim, location of the Beit HaMikdash. And why not? The Rambam explains:
And why do I say that that in the Temple and Jerusalem, the original sanctity is eternal, while in the rest of Eretz Yisrael as regards Sh’mitah and Ma’asrot the sanctity is lapsed? Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem is contingent upon the Divine Presence (Shekhinah), and the Shekhinah never abandoned [the Temple and Jerusalem]. . . .
Yes, the Shekhinah is still with us at Midreshet HaRova and elsewhere in Yerushalayim. In this sense, the Beit HaMikdash (with the surrounding city) is the ultimate place.
The Heart: Focus of Our World
The third type of ultimate place is our own heart, the center and focus of the world that we experience. While the heart is not explicitly called “the Place,” the Beit HaMikdash is — and several meforshim suggest that we have an obligation to recreate it inside our heart. We have all heard the famous idea that in the verse, “V’asu Li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham — Make Me a Sanctuary and I will live among them” (Sh’mot 25:8), it doesn’t say “betokho — in it” but rather “b’tokham — in them.”<9> We are now going beyond that. The Nefesh HaChaim goes so far as to suggest that the ikkar inyan (main idea) of the Mikdash is the person:
If you sanctify yourself accordingly, by fulfilling all the mitzvot . . . then you yourself are the actual Mikdash (haMikdash mamash), and Hashem — may His name be blessed — is within you. As it says (Yirmiyahu 7:4), “The Temple (Hekhal) of God, the Temple of God, are these.”<10>
This powerful approach appears as well in the Malbim, who points out that the verse of “V’asu Li mikdash” concludes by commanding “v’khen ta’asu — and so you shall do.” He elaborates:
This is l’dorot — for the generations [to come]. Each one should build a Mikdash in the chambers of his heart, and prepare a mizbe’ach (altar) to offer up all parts of himself to Hashem, to the extent of sacrificing his will to His glory at all times.<11>
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was first formulated by Rav Eliezer Azikri (1533-1600), author of Yedid Nefesh. One of his poems includes the line, “Within my heart I will build a Mishkan to His splendor, and my only soul will offer Him a korban (sacrifice).” Based on this line, the famous rosh yeshiva and author of Pachad Yitzchak, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, wrote the beautiful song known as Bilvavi. It is this song which most eloquently expresses the metaphor of the heart as Mikdash:
In my heart I will build a Mishkan, for the beauty of His honor.
And in the Mishkan, I will place a mizbe’ach for the glories of His splendor.
And for the ner tamid (eternal light), I will take the fire of the Akeidah.
And for a korban, I will offer Him my only soul.
The Beit HaMikdash is the ultimate physical place, but it is no longer standing. What is left for us to do is to internalize the Beit HaMikdash. In this sense, our heart can be called the ultimate place — when we focus it on serving Hashem, the Ultimate Place.
1. For an explanation from Rav Soloveitchik as to the significance of the occasions when we call God “Makom,” see Har’rei Kedem, vol. 2 (2004), pp. 215-216. It is summarized in English at http://www.kby.org/torah/article.cfm?articleid=2417
2. Bereisheet Rabbah 68:9. The midrash continues: “Based on the verse, ‘Look! There is a place with Me’ (Sh’mot 33:21), it follows that God is the place of the world, and His world is not His place. Rabbi Yitzchak said: It is written, ‘The eternal God is a home (ma’on)’ (Devarim 33:27). We would not know whether God is the home of His world or whether His world is His home; but based on the verse, ‘God, You have been our home’ (Tehillim 90:1), it follows that God is the home of His world, and His world is not His home.” (Rashi on Sh’mot 33:21 cites the middle part of this midrash.)
3. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Sacred and Profane: Kodesh and Chol in World Perspectives,” in Shiurei HaRav (Ktav, 1994), p. 13. This essay, originally a yahrzeit shiur for his father, first appeared in Hazedek, May-June 1945, and later in Gesher 3:1 (1966).
4. A different theological interpretation of the midrash is offered by Rav Hillel Goldberg in his article, “What is Basic Jewish Theology?” Intermountain Jewish News, March 12, 2004 (available at http://web.archive.org/web/20040327070618/http://www.ijn.com/archive/2004+arch/031204.htm#story6) He elaborates: “Where is G-d? Everywhere in the universe. If we so choose, we may perceive Him in everything from a pebble to events in our lives to the course of history to the farthest astral straits. However, even if our spiritual perception reaches this exalted spiritual level, we hardly know G-d. Even if we know the entire Torah, our knowledge of G-d remains limited. The world is not His place.”
5. Devarim 12:5, 14:24-25, 16:6, 17:8, 18:6, and 26:2. Rav Tzaddok HaKohen calls attention to the use of HaMakom to refer to the Beit HaMikdash; see his P’ri Tzaddik, Ma’amar K’dushat Shabbat, #7, s.v. uveit hamikdash.
6. Rav Alex Israel, “Kedushat Makom,” http://www.lind.org.il/features/alexisrael/5766/rai_reeh66_2.htm
7. Dr. Amos Barde’a, “Sanctity of Objects and Persons,” http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/kitisa/ard.html
8. Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Habechirah 6:16. The translation is mostly from Rav Alex, op. cit.
9. This idea, if not the actual phrase, appears in Rav Yissakhar Ber Eilenburg (1570-1623), Tzedah LaDerekh, on Sh’mot 25:8.
10. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim, Sha’ar 1, Chapter 4, s.v. lezot.
11. Malbim on Sh’mot 25:8. He develops this approach in his book of d’rashot, Artzot HaShalom, #3 (available at http://hebrewbooks.org/5637). The relevant parts are excerpted in Rav Moshe Tsuriel, “Adam Yisraeli, Hu Atzmo Beit HaMikdash!” at http://www.katif.net/users/new/jewish.php?page=92