Holy Ground? – Shemot 5781

It has been a difficult few days. The abhorrent violence in our nation’s Capitol on Wednesday has left many scared, angry, and sleepless. Whatever our political leanings, the desecration through violence of the halls of Congress and the hate-filled, antisemitic, propaganda that ran amok in the streets around the center of our national government is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

On Wednesday the temple of our democracy was desecrated. The images we saw will not leave us any time soon and the trauma for our representatives to government, the people who work in those buildings will linger. What was, for our country, the holy space of justice and liberty needs a cleansing. And as I ruminated on what this might look like I did some research, perhaps the purification needs are much deeper than any events on Wednesday. 

The stone used to build the Capitol, Aquia Creek sandstone, was quarried, in part, by slaves. Enslaved laborers completed large sections of the construction, too.[i] Throughout the buildings that house our national government are statues of complex people whose memories we ought not venerate. And there has been a movement afoot over the last number of years to tell the whole story. In 2012 a commemorative marker was placed to honor the enslaved laborers who built the structure. Sojouner Truth, Rosa Parks, and Chief Standing Bear’s statues can be found throughout the grounds in a move to include the narratives of those who were too often silent. The terrorists who walked about the Capitol on Wednesday with Confederate flags are clinging to a vision of America from a time long gone, one that silences the stories and experiences of all Americans. The story of our democracy includes the narratives of the enslaved person, the immigrant, the African-American, the Native American, the Jew, and the women, each who worked tirelessly in order for our republic to thrive. The holy space of our democracy can be made holy again. 

This week in Torah we begin the book of Exodus we begin to learn how. For the first time we meet Moses and in the course of the narrative of his life, Moses meets God. Moses is herding the flock of his father-in-law in the wilderness when he encounters the burning bush, a plant on fire that was not being consumed by fire. And when God saw that Moses saw this, “God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘here I am.’ And God said, ‘come no closer here. Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.’”[ii] This awesome moment between Moses and God at the burning bush begins with the definition of space indicated by the request by God to Moses to remove his shoes. Shoes in this particular moment are an indicator of the profane, and when Moses removes them, he is preparing himself for the opportunity to know God in an encounter that will change the course of the Israelite people. We know the importance of space, whether made holy through divine encounter, or built to inspire eye through the wizardry of architecture and engineering. Sacred space can be built by the hands of people and it can be in the wild among God’s creations.

Just a few weeks ago that we recalled a desecration of space from a different era. When we celebrated Chanukah we remembered a time when our sacred Jewish space, the Temple in Jerusalem, was vandalized. Statues of Greek gods were placed, unkosher animals ran around the spaces that were once consecrated to our God. It was only after the Hasmonean victory, that the Maccabees were able to begin to clean the Temple. In doing so, they created a new holiday. The festivities, of course, were centered around lighting the menorah, the seven branched candelabra. In addition, “the Maccabees also marched around the Temple, singing hymns of praise and bearing lulavim and etrogim…”[iii] This celebration of rededication that we know as the festival of Chanukah provides pieces of a framework for reconsecration. 

We also know that we come from a religion that venerates time with ritual, not space. Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells the story:

At a synagogue service one Shabbat morning, a Torah scroll rolled off the table and fell to the floor. It was an accident, completely unintentional. Nevertheless, there was shocked silence for some moments. The Torah is sacred; the most sacred object of our faith. To see it fall to the floor was a desecration, a violation. It was then that the wise rabbi rose to bring us back together. The scroll, he explained, sacred as it may be, is a symbol. What is truly sacred are the words recorded within it and the community that gathers for learning. An atonement must be offered. And the best atonement, declared the rabbi, is a re-dedication of the community to the word, to the sacred task of learning and living Torah.[iv] 

As human beings we are often reliant upon symbols to help us understand and make holiness among us. Our Jewish tradition wisely teaches that it is the actions that we take, the study of Torah, words of prayer, the atonement, sharing of rituals, and preservation of sacred principles that are holy and make a space sacred. Whether they knew it or not, the re-dedication of the Houses of Congress began again on Wednesday. It started when people like Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey aided in cleaning up the building. And most certainly it was formalized when Representative Pelosi, Senator McConnell, and Vice President Pence moved forward with the certification of the votes of the Electoral College. In a process that happens every four years that I am reasonably confident has never received as much viewership, the election of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris was certified, and the voice of the people was preserved and the purification began. 

Wednesday, we pray, marked the beginning of a new era for our country. A time of dedication to the principles of our democracy that we share regardless of who we voted for in the election. And so we pray, A Prayer for Our Country[v]

Every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea. 

There is much to be done in our time, the sort of hard work on which God smiles because it is done for the sake of the dignity and well-being of all God’s creatures. 

Together, let us work to preserve and make manifest the values upon which our democracy was founded. 

The task of all people of faith is to call governing authorities to fulfill God’s purpose of bringing about justice, mercy, and peace. 

Individually and as a nation, may we heed our obligations to each other as we navigate the tensions of building a just society. 

Rather than a politics of divisiveness, may we move our country toward a politics of empathy. 

May we use our power well so we do great things for all God’s creatures, all those made in God’s image who yearn for an equal place at America’s table. 

If we do all this, may grace and peace be ours in abundance. May we be a beacon and a blessing to the world. 

And let us say, Amen. 

Shabbat Shalom.

[i] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-01-07/mob-invades-capitol-symbol-of-democracy-troubled-history

[ii] Ex. 3:4-5.

[iii] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/286527.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[iv] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/A-Message-from-Rabbi-Ed-Feinstein–What-s-Sacred-.html?soid=1120967546000&aid=rDkEQga8u-M

[v] © Compiled and adapted by Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss from American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters.
By Eboo Patel, Jean Pierre Ruiz, Andrea Weiss, Susan Garrett, Carmen Nanko-Fernández, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Katharine Rhodes Henderson, M. Craig Barnes. Used with permission of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss. All rights reserved. 

About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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