One of the pleasures that I receive from writing this quarterly message is the ability to research subjects about which I know very little and then relate them to my Jewish tradition.
Altar in Hebrew is Bamah (plural: Bamot) and is literally translated as either a platform or a “high place.” I further learned, my Jewish tradition places me slightly at odds with the idea of an altar, since the building of private altars has been strictly forbidden for the last three thousand years. The building of public altars, of which there were two in the Temple in Jerusalem, has been forbidden following the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, approximately two thousand years ago.
Private altars were permitted to be built in intermittent intervals prior to the construction by King Solomon of the First Temple, but following the creation of the national altars, construction of private altars was prohibited.
So how, you may ask, can a Jew gain access to these “high places” known as altars and thereby make either an obligatory or voluntary offering to God. The answer lies in our liturgy. Whereas we can no longer bring peace offerings consisting of cattle, sheep or goats, we now conclude our prayers with a simple blessing called Sim Shalom. This asks God to bestow peace, goodness, mercy and blessings upon us, with a final request that echoes the memory of private and public altars:
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.
Elsewhere in our liturgy there is an even closer connection to the “high places” we call altars. There are fifteen Psalms: 120-134, which are known collectively as the Shir Hamaalot—psalms or the Songs of Ascent. Each of these corresponds to the fifteen steps that led to the Temple courtyard where the altar was located. The ascent today may not be physically possible, but it can be achieved in a spiritual sense by taking time to read and chant these beautiful psalms.
A few of my favorites are Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?; Psalm 126: They that sow in tears shall reap in joy; Psalm 130: Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD; and Psalm 134: Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
While taking time to read this issue of SACRED JOURNEY I hope you will find your "high place" that allows you to re-enter and engage life more fully.
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