We open our morning prayer service with the words of the Mah Tovu. The prayer sparks us to consider the beauty of our sanctuaries and the awe that our sacred spaces inspire. Creaky morning voices begin to warm up as we pray these words, and we see that our spaces are made beautiful not only by the architecture or the color scheme, but by the community who gathers together there.
In our parashah this week we see the Israelite community creating a sacred, set-apart space for worship. We read in Parashat Re’eh, “look only to the site that the Eternal your God will choose amidst all your tribes as habitation, to establish God’s name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices.”
In our Torah portion, God determines the need for a distinct area to perform animal sacrifice. While the Torah does not explain why sacrifice must be limited to a single area, we can understand the implications of the order. We know that for the Israelite community, sacrifice was the primary way to communicate with God. Through choosing the offering and the physical act of sacrifice, the divine becomes accessible. As the korban (sacrifice) goes up in smoke, the people know that they have facilitated an act that is pleasing to the difficult-to-know and difficult-to-reach source of life. Knowing one can access God in one particular space makes God’s distant presence feel much closer.
To the relief of the contemporary Jewish community, we have outlasted the sacrificial system and have found new ways to connect to God’s presence. Parashat Re’eh is truly ahead of its time as it goes on to give instructions to the Israelite community that continue to sustain Jews today. It is in this week’s text that we receive extensive directions regarding Jewish dietary laws, the laws of kashrut. We receive permission to eat animals that chew the cud and have split hooves, in addition to fish that have both fins and scales. Here too we first learn about the prohibition against “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk,” the rule that evolves into prohibiting the mixing of dairy with meat.
Not every Jewish person today follows the laws of kashrut as they were first described. Jewish dietary decision-making has changed to include variations like keeping kosher-style, keeping kosher in the home, or keeping eco-kashrut. In this vein, some Jews might eagerly eat foods that are inherently not kosher, but feel a particular pull to Jewish cuisine like kugel or matzah balls. Early on, the Israelite community was bound together by the laws of kashrut. Food was elevated as a part of the communal holy experience of the Jewish people, linking us to one another and to God.
Our parashah teaches another important lesson about food: specifically, what to do with our extra yield. At harvest, we are taught to leave a portion for “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements” who may come and eat their fill. Here too, we see a lesson as we seek God in the modern day. We no longer find God in a centralized location, but we may find holiness in the actions of our hands as we help to feed the needy among us.
Over the course of our history, Jewish practice has been decentralized from the Temple in Jerusalem, and prayer has replaced sacrifice. As we pray, inspired by sanctuaries around us, we may find beauty in the structure that houses us when we gather. But I am always struck, during the Mah Tovu, by the phrase: “v’ani t’filati lecha (to you, my prayer goes forth).” The beauty of the space is made not only by the walls or the stained glass or artful configuration of the seating. All of this becomes beautiful when we enter: each of us who is made holy by our daily choices that are inspired by Torah and community, each of us who gives freely to those who are in need. A prayer goes forth from each soul, illuminating our sanctuaries and our dwelling places. And in this moment we know: God is found here.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is a rabbi and educator at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at email@example.com.