Holy of Holies Within
The Virgin Mary was carefully removed from her pedestal above the doorway of the Catholic church on my streetcorner in Harlem a few weeks ago. What was once “Harlem’s Cathedral” is now a charter school. The sanctuary has been officially ‘deconsecrated’ - which is to say - it’s now a secular building that will educate young lives - and no longer a formal house of faith.
Buildings and objects, moments and people - become consecrated, sanctified, dedicated or set aside for special purpose, higher calling, designated service, holy role. Sometimes, like this church, the designation can be altered. But in our biblical tradition - that isn’t always be the case - once the status of sacred is conveyed it’s there to stay, sometimes forever.
This is the topic of the last chapter of Va’Yikra, the book that deals with all things holy, and that began with the invitation to each one of us to enter, like Moses, into our sacred domain within. What was once a mobile tent later became a marble temple, then lived on as many synaggoues and chapels, and now, still evolving, a metaphor for how each one of us contains the shrine within our body, mind and soul. This poetic way of interpreting the sacrificial system and the elaborate details of the tabernacle isn’t new. Mystics and Midrash makers have made meaning of these chapters for many generations, reinterpreting holy to their own realities, societal conditions and continued yearnings for living lives of dignity, intimacy and love.
Chapter 27 focuses on the dynamics of gifts dedicated to the temple - who gets to give what, when, how. Whether it’s an animal for sacrifice, hard cash or real estate - how does matter become elevated and how do laws ensure the dedicated gift ends up in the right (human) hands. How big a deal this is can be understood from the peculiar expression used in this verse:
אַךְ־כׇּל־חֵ֡רֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַחֲרִם֩ אִ֨ישׁ לַֽיהֹוָ֜ה מִכׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֗וֹ מֵאָדָ֤ם וּבְהֵמָה֙ וּמִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ לֹ֥א יִמָּכֵ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִגָּאֵ֑ל כׇּל־חֵ֕רֶם קֹֽדֶשׁ־קׇדָשִׁ֥ים ה֖וּא לַיהֹוָֽה׃
"But of all that anyone owns, be it human or beast or land, nothing that has been proscribed for YHWH may be sold or redeemed; every proscribed thing is the holy of holies, belonging to YHWH.” (Va. 27:28)
The use of Holy of Holies here is fascinating. The Holy of Holies is usually referred to as a physical location - the innermost chamber in the Tent of Time, off limits to all but the High Priest. It’s a tiny space containing the Ark of the Covenant; The cockpit of the entire operation. The Holy of Holies is also sometimes what the sacrifices and offerings eaten by the priests in the inner courtyard - as opposed to the ordinarily holy ones eaten by the rest of us outside. Yom Kippur is also called Holy of Holies - a way to elevate the sacred in the realm of time.
The word “Kadosh” - Holy - shows up in the beginning of this book, and now again, as bookend, as it wraps up. Smack in the middle are the chapters about Kedoshim - what does it mean to live a holy life.
The message here, if subtle, is quite clear. The notion of what’s holy keeps evolving - from building to time to human life to sacred gifts and their intention. The gifts we dedicate - our donations to what’s meaningful in our lives that feels valuable, our time, our love -- are holy. When we offer our best and make a promise of a gift to one of these agents of the sacred - it becomes the holy of holies too, and we may not replace, remove, desanctify. Holy is now in our hearts and hands.
With this, we bid farewell to the third book of Torah, with gratitude and wishes of strength and sacred intentions for the journey ahead, into the fourth book, where the wild things are.
Chazak! May resilient strength and tender curiosity guide us further as we complete one book and enter another.
Want to learn more, discuss your thoughts and feelings about Va’Yikra and Below the Bible Belt? Join me on Monday July 25th 2022, 1pm ET for our first hour long Zoom Study Session. Link here:
https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89433380921 Meeting ID: 894 3338 0921
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