I am not a big-hotel person. Wandering through long hallways, going up and down in mirrored elevators and walking on endless carpeted floors does not somehow enhance my sense of well-being or joy. When I first got to the hotel, I had to find out where the convention was actually happening and the answer was: “Take the elevator to C level.”
Now in Israeli geography, when you live not too far from the lowest spot on earth, the term “sea level” has a life of its own: driving to the Jordan Valley in Israel, whether to the Sea of Galilee in the north or the Dead Sea in the south, the signs indicating “sea level” are your reference to how high or low you are going. So I guess “sea level” made perfect sense to me. I was lucky enough that there were other people going into the elevator so I had a quick chance to realize my mistake without embarrassing myself too much, although I was already getting disoriented to the point that I wasn’t sure whether we were going up or down, the elevator sign just indicated it was EZ.
On the right level I still found myself more than once following the cool CCAR footprints on the floor to find myself in the right place at the wrong time (or vice versa) which gave me a chance to re-evaluate Heschel’s idea about sacred time versus sacred space, since in this case I needed a combination of both to make things happen. With this little sense of disorientation, I finally made it to Monday morning prayers, to enter a huge ballroom marked by its heavy chandeliers shedding somewhat dim light, carpeted floor and windowless walls, a setting I found not at all like my preferred setting for prayer. Not having windows was the hardest. I was well aware of the demand to have windows in a place of prayer, since at one point in our community in Rosh Ha’ayin, the option of praying in a miklat – a bomb shelter, came up, and I used the demand that there be windows to reject that option.
But then, as often happens, the magic just happened. I was carried by the music, the spirit, the joy of being together and the words of Torah, and it made me completely oblivious of the setting. It was symbolic for me that Rabbi David Stern, the elected CCAR president, related in his D’var Torah to the feeling of disorientation, of not knowing where the four directions or the four winds are, or being ‘wind whipped’. In that case, he said, quoting from Brachot tractate, you need to direct your heart to heaven to re-orient and re-connect yourself. This idea made me think of the small ritual of covering yourself with Talit, the prayer shawl, at the beginning of the Morning Prayer: you first wrap yourself completely, losing all sense of orientation, and then re-open the tallit regaining a new orientation, which has to do with turning your heart to heaven. I also realized that the word orientation might have originally indicated finding the orient, the Mizrach, the direction where (for those who used that term!) Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem are.
In turbulent times, Rabbi Stern related, when we experience a sense of being ‘wind whipped’, we need to take our sages’ advice and find ways to re-orient ourselves, to create our own compass (מצפן) and our own consciousness (מצפון) so we are able to discern good from evil.
For me it meant going back to our base line or what I was referring to as sea level.
Rabbi Stern concluded by mentioning the Sulam, Jacob’s ladder. Each of us, he argued, need to place his ladder with its legs steadily standing on the ground but its head aspiring to reach the sky. It made me think of Jacob waking up the morning after the ladder dream and realizing: God dwells in this place and I didn’t know.
God definitely dwelled in that place and I didn’t know.
Rabbi Ayala Miron serves Bavat Ayin Congregation in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and teaches at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.