Parshat Vayera – Finding a Makom Kavua

In today’s parsha, the Torah tells us that Avraham watches from some hilltop as God reigns down fire and brimstone onto the Sodom and Gomorrah.   It is a tender and poignant moment; Avraham’s heart is heavy with the knowledge of what is about to occur to the residents therein, whom he had fought with God to protect.   Vayashkeym Avraham b’boker – And Avraham got up early in the morning   El HaMakom Asher Amad Sham -  To the place that he had stood (previously?)   -Et Pnai HaShem – In front of God.   The straightforward understanding of this verse indicates that Avraham either wanted simply to watch what was going to happen – this is indicated by the next line, which uses the verbs Vayashkeyf,and Vayar – “he gazed outward”, and “he saw”. He brought himself to behold the devastation. But there is another meaning to this verse, that Avraham goes precisely el haMakom asher amad sham, he goes to the spot where he had previously stood.  When had he stood in this spot previously? To petition Hashem on behalf of the people of Sdom.  He argued, if there are 50 righteous people, would you destroy these people? 45 people, 30 people….10 people!   According to the second understanding, Avraham intentionally went back to the place where he had previously stood, asher amad sham. Why did he go back to this place -  to pray yet again.  As the Seforno, the 16th cent. Italian commentator puts it, “his intention was to pray for mercy on the people, as he had been unable to argue for them from a position of strict justice.”   So Avraham intentionally returns to that same spot to pray.   IS there significance in the fact that he goes back to the very same spot? You might not have thought so, but the Sages find deep importance in the fact of Avraham’s returning to that same spot! The Talmud in MAsechet Brachot, 6b, states as follows: Kol haKoveya Makom l’tfilato, Anyone who establishes a set place for his prayer, the God of Avraham will be a help to him.  And when one day, this person dies, it will be said of him, Woe to this humble person, woe to this pious person, he is of the students of Avraham our forefather.”  The gemara sees an intrinsic connection between Avraham  and the law of  Makom Kavua, having a set place for prayer.  And from where do they learn it,what is the proof text?  el haMakom asher amad sham – and to the place where he had earlier stood—where amad, stood, is understood to mean Amidah, prayer. That is, Avraham returned to pray in a place where he had previously prayed. So our episode with Avraham is seen to set a precedent in Jewish life – namely, that one should always DAVEN, and potentially LEARN in the same place. Now, a couple of questions -  what are the parameters of this, and why should we do it, what can it teach us – davening in the same place? There is an early makhloket about the law itself: Rabbeinu Yonah believes that it only applies in one’s house, meaning not in shul. If you’re in shul, anywhere is fine – but if you daven at home, you should have one place in your house.  The Rosh says no – this applies everywhere, even in shul. And that is how the law has tended – there is, in fact, a law, applicable today even that one should daven in the same spot in shul. This has lead to a lot of literature on the question – what happens, if you come to shul , and there is someone in your seat? Should you, can you ask them to get up? And the answer is as follows: The Shulchan ARuch says that if thee’s any need  to not daven in your makom kevuah, such as, if asking the person would be at all awkward, uncomfortable , embarrassing for them, not worth it, don’t ask them its fine. This has also led a to this old standby : whats the difference between a church and a synagogue – you walk into a church, someone  says three words to you: God Loves You. You walk into synagogue and someone says three words to you – That’s my seat! There is a shul in St. Louis, called the U City shul, it was once called the Chesed Shel Emet. A side note about this shul is that its rabbi held the title of Chief Rabbi of St. Louis, one of the only cities in US that had a chief rabbi  until he pass away three years ago, R. Shlomo Rivkin (Baltimore had, NYC had, Montreal still has). So this shul When a person from that shul passed away they had a custom that nobody was to sit in his seat. It was a way of indicating that someone was sorely missed. The shul, however, looked like something of a checker board, or patch work quilt with so many empty seats scattered throughout the shul, that nobody dared sit in. esp. given its older demographic. But this minhag was esp. challenging when the shul hosted an NCSY shabbaton as invariably one of the older baalei batim would be running around telling the NCSY'ers not to sit in that seat or that seat etc. Again, the Halacha seems to frown on such a thing but we can se how it would be carried out. But this halachic conversation of yes switching seats, no switching seats, misses the larger question of, what is Makom Kavuah  about? Whats the point of it? That’s what I would like to turn to now.   There are several different approaches:   One approach is that it is practical: The Rashba, student of Rabbeinu Yonah, claims that if you set aside a particular place for prayer, it will become associated in your mind with awe and solemnity, which is the state of mind you want for prayer, and it will be mutually re-inforcing.  Similarly, the Meiri claims that its simply easier to concentrate if you are in your prayer spot, hopefully less to distract you than in a new spot that you are not used to.   Theres another approach which, inversely thinks about the other folks in the shul. Dr. Alan Morinis, the Dean of the Mussar Institute in Canada, notes that the gemara mentioned that one who has a makom kavua, will be rememebered for their anavah , their humility.  What is the connection between davening in one spot, and humility? “The answer is that by fixing yourself to one spot, you free up all the other space for others to use (Everyday Holiness, 49). A powerful idea; returning to the same spot everyday allows others to take up the space that they might need, and not feel impinged by our own activities in this world.  This is a general lesson, to limit and be aware of the space we take up in this world, as an act of increasing humility.   A third approach is that of Rav Yehezkel Landau, the 18th cent. Rabbi of Prague, gives us a different take.  He notes that that “once a person prays in a certain location, that spot acquires a certain spiritual quality that makes it especially suitable for prayer.  One should therefore pray in the same place each time, as that location has become more sacred due to its having been the site of prayer in the past” (from R. David Silverberg).   I think this pushes us in a more helpful direction. And it also accords more with what Avraham did; recall that our prototype here is Avraham, and he is returning to the same spot he’d been when he argued for Sdom. So the practicality answers don’t quite ring true for him. Rather, the notion that a place, by virtue of having had a special, holy experience there, feels more spiritual going forward, more connected, that rings true.   IT reminds me of an exercise that I experienced while doing outdoor education. There’s the notion of a “sit spot”; that over the course of a week, month, years, students (and they can be children or adults) find a spot somewhere in nature, in the woods, on the beach, on a river; a bit isolated; where they return to, every day, for at least five minutes. And they just sit there, and observe. They observe changes in the weather; the climate; how the plants and animals change and shift over time.  By revisiting one spot, again and again, one can truly allow their focus to open up, and become much more sensitive and aware of the world around them.   But that’s in nature, which has a lot more going on.  What about in shul; which doesn’t really change; same chairs, same bimah, same wood paneling.  Very pretty, but it doesn’t change….   But what changes? Us.  I believe that one of the strengths of having a makom kavuah, a set place of davening, is that it provides us with the inverse of the outdoor sit spot; it allows one to see the changes in themselves.  By returning to the same place, time and time again; the words don’t change, the setting doesn’t change, but hopefully we can become more aware and in tune with our own internal changes.  Where are we now; what are we bringing to this service that is different than the last time. There is a story I once heard about AJ HEschel,  who was giving over a shiur in class. The next week, a student of his gives over the same idea in a different class - the rabbi attacks it, no you've got it all wrong. The student says, but I'm just repeating what you said last week? The rabbi replies, I've changed since then (or something to that effect).   One of the deepest truths that makom kavuah comes to teach us, is that if we are always striving to go to different places, try new things, new positions, perhaps even different spots in shul; we miss the most crucial change of all – that taking place inside of us. Joey Weisenberg, a NY Jewish musician likes to say, You can get bored in one bar, and say, hey! Let’s go to the next bar.  But you’re the same boring you in that other bar as well.   Hopefully, we will all increase our powers of davening, and they will allow us to deepen and grow our spiritual relationship with God, and deepen our awareness and understanding of ourselves.

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