The first four books of the Torah describe two kinds of encounters with God. One is having a conversation with God, or God’s “angel”. The other is going through a ritual to rededicate yourself to God. The ritual of choice was the animal sacrifice.
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built altars for animal sacrifices in several places: Shekhem, Mount Moriyah (said to be the site of Jerusalem), Beersheva, Hebron/Chevron, Beit-El, and a spot between Beit-El and Aiy (probably the site later named Shiloh). Modern scholars have established that these places were also sites for Canaanite religious ritual. Perhaps they struck people as particularly good spots for numinous experiences.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses built an altar at the site of the Israelites’ first battle, in which they defeated Amalek; and his father-in-law carried out an animal sacrifice at the foot of Mount Sinai. But when Moses spent his first 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, God gave him lengthy instructions for building a portable sanctuary as a dwelling place (mishkan) for God, with the ark in the innermost chamber, and the altar for animal and grain offerings in the outer enclosure. This sanctuary could be dismantled, moved, and re-erected, so once the Israelites had made all the parts, they did their ritual offerings only at its altar, no matter where they were camping in the wilderness. The priests—at this point, Aaron and his sons—became necessary for all rituals.
But what would happen after the Israelites entered Canaan and settled down in scattered villages and towns? Would the head of every household build his own altar and lead his own rituals again?
The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”). The first step is to banish any possibility of worshiping the God of Israel at any Canaanite religious sites.
You must utterly obliterate every makom where the nations that you are dispossessing serve their gods: upon the mountains, the high places, and upon the hills, and under every luxuriant tree. You must break up their altars and shatter their standing-stones and burn their tree-goddesses in fire and chop down the statues of their gods; and you must obliterate their sheim from that makom. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:2-3)
makom = place; sacred place; religious site.
sheim = name, reputation, standing.
Moses has told the Israelites many times to destroy all the religious items of the natives when they conquer Canaan. Now he also tells them to obliterate the places themselves. No longer can a Canaanite site be used to make offerings to the God of Israel.
You must not do thus for God, your god. Rather, you must darash and come to the makom which God, your god, chooses out of all your tribes [tribal territories] to set Its sheim there, for it to dwell in. (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)
darash = seek out, inquire about.
It will be the makom that God, your god, will choose for the dwelling of Its sheim. There you shall bring everything that I command you: your elevation-offerings and your slaughter-offerings and your tithes and the donation of your hands and all your choice vow-offerings that you vow to God. And you shall rejoice before God, your god, you and your sons and your daughters and your manservants and your maidservants … (Deuteronomy 12:11-12)
God Itself will not dwell in the single chosen place, only God’s name. This abstraction distinguishes the Israelite religion from the Canaanite belief that gods can inhabit wood and stone images.
Deuteronomy never says which place God will choose. Judging by the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the Children of Israel alternated between short periods when there was no single makom and people constructed other altars at will; and long periods when all offerings were brought to a central sanctuary where priests conducted the rituals.
For the first 14 years after the Israelites cross the Jordan in the book of Joshua, the portable sanctuary with its altar and ark stayed in Gilgal, and the Israelites were free to set up their own altars to God elsewhere. Then Joshua assembled everyone to erect the portable sanctuary at Shiloh (possibly on the site of one of Abraham’s altars), in the territory of the northern tribe of Efrayim. Over time the sanctuary acquired stone walls and wooden doors, though its roof remained a tent woven out of goat-hair.
For 369 years Shiloh was one and only place to bring offerings. Its last high priest was Eli, who died when the city fell to the Philistines in the first book of Samuel. The Philistine army captured the ark, then returned it to Israelite territory seven months later. While the ark was kept in a private house in the Israelite town of Kiryat-Ye-arim, there were national altars in Nov and Giveon, but for 57 years individuals are allowed to build their own altars as well. Individual altars were prohibited again only after King Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem and put the official altar and the ark in the same enclosure once more.
This week’s Torah portion describes the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when everyone must travel to the central place of worship to make offerings, pay tithes, feast, and celebrate. Since the Israelites are settled all over the former land of Canaan, the journey to Shiloh or Jerusalem takes from one to several days for most people.
Re-eih gives no instructions for what a man should do in between festivals if he wants to ritually rededicate himself to God because he has done something wrong, or because he is full of gratitude and generosity, or because he just wants to be closer to God. Should he travel all the way to the temple? Or is there another way?
The modern biblical scholar James Kugel argues that Deuteronomy promotes serving God by obeying all the laws passed down by Moses, instead of by making offerings at an altar. Being conscientious about obeying all of God’s laws will naturally lead people to be loyal to God and cling to God with love.
After the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism substituted prayer for offerings at an altar. But they continued to emphasize the importance of following both the rules in the Torah and the additional rules determined by the rabbis in the Talmud.
Today, many Jews (including myself) pick and choose which of the rules are really important and worth following. When we want to rededicate ourselves to God, we either go through a ritual with our own congregation, or we pray passionately, hoping to make a connection. Unless we are in Jerusalem, the idea of traveling to a single holy place for all our religious rituals can seem irrelevant and outdated.
Yet the 19th-century Chassidic rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote in Sefat Emet that “darash and come to the makom” means we should seek out the places, times, and souls in which holiness is revealed. They are where we can find God, and rededicate ourselves to holiness.
I believe an important caveat to this approach is that we must not unthinkingly adopt the holy places of others. Each individual must inquire whether a place, a community, a ritual, or even a time, is truly holy enough to succeed in reconnecting them with God, rededicating themselves to God. If something is lacking, the individual must keep on seeking for the makom where God’s name dwells.
This means there are multiple holy places—but I believe individual “altars” are not enough; a human being who yearns for the divine also needs a central place of worship. A numinous spot out in the woods can be a makom for silent connection between an individual and the divine. Yet in order to sustain our dedication to God and to the path of becoming holy, we need to find a makom in a community, with set times for prayer and ritual.
It may take a long journey to get there.