M’lo Chol Ha’aretz K’vodo: The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory
A Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Rosh Hashana 5770/2009
[for citations of rabbinic and modern sources, see the sermon on the Or Ami website]
Lead in: Sheryl Braunstein and Or Ami Chorale sing “B’tzelem Elohim”
Sheryl’s beautiful song reminds me that we all were created in God’s image and therefore can “see” God’s face in our encounters with other people. This summer, I encountered another face of the Holy One. And it moved me deeply.
I spent the summer on sabbatical, dedicated as a Shabbat, an opportunity to retreat, reflect, refresh. While our daughter was a CIT at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa all summer, Michelle, the boys and I “mini-vanned” across America. We stayed at 3 Jewish Summer Camps; visited 9 Baseball Parks; boated in 6 waterways; danced at 5 amazing concerts; meandered through 10 American history museums; wine-tasted throughout the Northwest; and snapped over 3,000 digital photos. During our summer odyssey, we drove over 6,000 miles, visiting 20 States in 31 days in our own Odyssey minivan.
Most memorable of all were the 14 amazing National Parks. There, we were overwhelmed by America’s natural beauty. Its spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Its purple mountains, majestic; those low-lying, fruited plains. Wherever we drove, from the mountains (in Colorado) to the prairies (in South Dakota) to Oregon’s oceans white with foam, I kept encountering… HaMakom.
Of the 70 names for God referred to in Torah, HaMakom, meaning “The Place”, stayed with me during the sabbatical. Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe.”
My heart first opened to HaMakom, “God as Everywhere”, as Michelle and I meandered for two days up the gorgeous Oregon Coast. Each scenic overlook brought us to a view more breath-taking than the last. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature surrounding you that you lost track of time, of priorities, of yourself? Every inch of the Oregon coast was so darned beautiful. It was God’s country. It is God. HaMakom.
I felt a little like Adam in that first week following his creation. After the work of naming the animals, and the fun of dallying with Eve, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century collection of rabbinic stories, tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator!
Imagine that! The first human being, Adam, the first to behold God’s creation, was so inspired that he became Creation’s first poet. Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One.
Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world.
The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.
Like Adam did, so often this summer I perceived signs of HaMakom, God’s Presence: in the ocean, in the mountains and the sky. My ears began to hear the praise-songs of nature. My heart, inspired beyond its usual capacity, began to burst.
Often we, who live closed off in cities, drive around in climate-controlled cars, work in climate-controlled offices, forget to take notice of the glorious splendor which surrounds us: California mountains and Pacific seashores, desert palm trees and picturesque sunsets? We make ourselves too busy, too stressed, too worried about money, or time, or our jobs, to see the wonder. We use every excuse to remain in our homes, walled off in our cars.
That was me. For most of my life. As many of you remember, I used to live with my gaze firmly locked on my CrackBerry. I used to walk around with my head down. Then I finally understood just what the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, was trying to say all those years ago: M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo, the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic creations, yet we humans take our hands and cover our eyes. Except during isolated moments, my hands blinded me to the beauty around us.
And then we visited the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. And then my eyes were truly opened wide.
And then I was awed into silence by the grandeur of Creation. It was like I was seeing clearly for the first time.
We were driving north by Jackson Lake, planning to scout out Yellowstone in the north. (Anyone been up there? Gorgeous, no?!) I had to pull off to the side of the road because I could not catch my breath. My family thought I wanted to take pictures. My son wondered if I was praying. Like Adam, I was just overwhelmed by the beauty. I needed to stop moving, and just take it in. I needed to find words to express the inspiration I felt.
This time the blackberry served a holy purpose. I took it out and wrote about my experience of wonder. I had to write something. The yearning was so powerful. The need to praise brought tears to my eyes.
In Torah, we read that when the Biblical scouts returned from scouting out the Holy Land, argue as they might about the Israelites’ ability to take possession of the land, they nonetheless wholeheartedly agreed in their praise of the land. They called it eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, a land flowing with milk and honey. I imagine how they must have welled up with emotion as they recounted discovering Israel’s beauty.
In the Grand Tetons, in the Louisiana Bayous, and all across this beautiful country of ours, I too welled up with intense emotion. America, every inch of it, is flowing with its own flavors of milk and honey. Some of us see it. Many of us miss it. The eighth century prophet Isaiah said it best: m’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s magnificence. God created. God sustains. God is. Here. In this place. The Place. HaMakom. This is God.
There once was a time when we Jews were inextricably tied to the land. Back in biblical times, we farmed and we harvested. Our holy days – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot – were dedicated to celebrating the agricultural cycle- planting, reaping, harvesting. Following Israel’s 20th century rebirth, the poignancy was that we were once again reconnected with the earth. But for most of us here in America – few of us farmers – the distance between our lives and any land is vast and growing. But it wasn’t always that way.
I discovered, for example, that the humans, who have inhabited southern Utah for over 10,000 years, were integrally connected to a mysterious canyon, we now call Zion Canyon National Park. Originally it wasn’t to hike or take pictures, like we do. Or to rock climb or rest. They came for food and water… it was as simple as that. Human survival meant gleaning from the land its scant harvests. Archaic peoples, Ancestral Native Americans – Pueblo Dwellers and Southern Paiutes – had extensive and intuitive knowledge of the plants, animals, and seasons. They would hunt, fish, and gather. They grew modest crops, and, like Jews do on Sukkot, would harvest only after they offered thanks for the generous bounty.
Of course, this ancient way of life is gone now. Today, when most of us travel on vacation, our temporary home isn’t a brush shelter, but a hotel. Our water source comes from a tap, not the natural springs in the rocks. We don’t need to forage in order to live. Still, we turn to the land to harvest its gifts. What might our harvests be? For many National Park travelers, we come to collect not things but knowledge, not resources but memories, not trophies but satisfaction.
And so it was for us when we hiked through Zion Canyon National Park. The sun warmed the earth. Buds blossomed and birds soared. A quiet liveliness rustled through the park. And I encountered something else. In the sound of the song of a river, as a canyon wren scolded us, amidst the giant cliffs that made me think big and feel small. I stood silent, mouth agape; eyes open wide at the astonishing landscape. Despite unsettling changes in our world, while standing there and gazing deep into the soul of that canyon, I found contentment, a place of peace.
That, my friends, is the encounter with holiness, with kedusha. That is what our ancestor Jacob experienced when he sensed a ladder rising up to the heavens and sensed God standing beside it. In the middle of nowhere, he realized, Achen yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh vanochi lo yadati – Wow, God is in this place and I did not know it. He identified where he stood: Mah norah haMakom hazeh – How awesome is HaMakom, this place. Ein zeh ki im beit Elohim v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim – This is a house of God, a gateway to the heavens. HaMakom. God. In this place. Everyplace. A gateway to heavens. Everywhere. Yeish. God’s here. There. Everywhere.
Of course, this contentment and peace so often eludes us. Whether driving around the city, journeying through the High Holy Days, or stumbling through our lives, we easily miss the serenity within our reach. So how can we encounter HaMakom, the Divine right here?
My story: It was a hot, August Sunday, just before our cross country travels were to come to an end. Michelle, Daniel, Noah and I set out to hike up the Virgin River, a beautiful, flowing tributary that bisects Utah’s Zion Canyon National Park. Two hours into the hike, we entered the Narrows, so called because of the narrow space created by the towering canyon walls as they leaned in. Though awesome sights encircled us, rocky obstacles lurking beneath the water’s surface sought to trip us up. Walking sticks were needed to probe the path ahead for underwater holes.
Here one must tread carefully. Too much attention focused on the surrounding beauty, and a foot misplaced on the slippery upcropping of underwater rocks sends you splashing into the river. This is a lesson of everyday life. Pay attention or you might get tripped up.
At the same time, don’t miss out on what’s right before your eyes. The Narrows also taught us that when we spend too much attention focused on each individual step – so afraid of stumbling and getting soaked – we might miss the grandeur of creation: cascading waterfalls, multicolored rock shelves, turquoise blue skies. We might walk right past Jacob’s ladder, sha’ar shamayim, the gateway to heavenly inspiration.
It’s right there. And here. And everywhere. HaMakom. We work hard to maintain balance and find equilibrium. Sometimes we have to play it safe and walk with conservative care.
Yet other times, we can take a risk. Look up and around, open up to the splendor. As the mystics remind us, Ein Sof, there is no end to God’s Holy space.
So remember that HaMakom, The Place, God’s Place, is right here. At the Agoura Hills-Calabasas Community Center. This afternoon, at Paradise Cover in Malibu. And on Sukkot, around a campfire in Old Agoura. Yes, HaMakom is up top of Big Bear. In Malibu Creek State Park. On the hiking trail out behind your back gate.
In these difficult times, life’s pressures threaten to push us over the edge. But we can still go find the Holy One. There you just might find that contentment and peace you seek. On a walk with a friend around Calabasas Lake, watching the stars with your kid up on Mulholland, sharing a cup of coffee with a loved one in the back yard. It’s a tried and true path to spirituality. As Naturalist John Muir said: “…break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend [time] in the woods. [You will] Wash your spirit clean.”
That’s the secret to finding God. Remembering that it’s all HaMakom, a sacred place. This whole world is Kadosh, holy. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed it. The psalmist Doug Cotler sings it: M’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s glory. “[And] Even when it’s hard to hear, Surely God is always near For everywhere we stand is holy ground.” Kadosh.
Song: Cantor Doug Cotler and Or Ami Chorale sing Cantor Cotler’s Kadosh