The pictures of the ruined houses of Homs, where the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin died, have made me think of a story from the Talmud.
It’s somewhere around the year 100CE and Rabbi Yossei goes into one of the many ruins around the desolate city of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans, to pray. When he emerges, the prophet Elijah is waiting to chide him. You shouldn’t have done that, he tells him: ruins are dangerous, haunted by demons and persons of ill repute. But then curiosity gets the better of the prophet and he asks the rabbi, ‘What did you hear in there?’
I said to him: ‘A heard the sound of a voice moaning like a dove and saying: ‘Alas for the children on account of whose sins I’ve destroyed my house, burnt my temple, and sent them as exiles among the nations’ (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 3a)
I remember once stopping at a street corner in Jerusalem where a gang of teenagers were stoning a hedgehog to death. I begged them to stop, but it was too late.
Animals, people, houses, cities: all over the world there is destruction and, when we allow this to penetrate our hearts, which much of the time we do not because otherwise we could not continue with our lives, I imagine that we hear the same voice of God, weeping and saying ‘Alas for my children and what they have done to my world’.
This week we read in the Torah about the building of the Tabernacle, a sacred place for God. On the one hand this is somewhere unique and special, set apart, holy, served by the priests at sacred times and appointed seasons.
On the other hand it is everywhere, wherever life is honoured and respected, loved and cherished. ‘You shall make me a sacred place and I shall dwell among you’, says God. People do it all the time. Sacred space for a mother is the heart of her child, which she devotes her life to filling with the instinct for goodness and kindness. To a lover, sacred space is the presence of the beloved. To a shepherd it is the pasture for the flocks; to a gardener the flowers and the trees; to a surgeon the palpitating miracle of the human body; to an ornithologist that nest which must be protected from marauders because a rare bird has chosen to raise its brood there for the first time in thirty years. There is nowhere in the world which cannot become God’s sacred place. It all depends on what we do there and on what our intentions are. Holiness is present wherever life is held in reverence; wherever it is desecrated, God weeps.
Synagogues, churches, temples and mosques are potentially holy. Their purpose is to remind us that we constantly have the option of being either creators or destroyers in God’s world, so that we choose what is good and kind, what nurtures and venerates life, all of which ultimately belongs to Gods. When we do that, we make our houses of prayer truly holy places.
In the last year our community has been privileged to create a new synagogue, which we are gradually turning into a real home with crumbs in the carpet and finger marks on the doors. The challenge is how we can best use it to inspire us help make the world a place where God’s voice is heard, not in weeping, but in song.