Purify Space and Make it Holy

I wrote my rabbinic thesis on the magic and demonology found in a 13th century book called Sefer Hasidim, The Book of the Pious. One of my favorite stories from the text describes how to expel demons from a space where you want to build a house. 10 men, one of whom carried a Torah scroll, were required to walk a grid over the space so they covered every inch of ground while reciting psalms. Other instructions designated how to consecrate a new home with a variety of rituals involving salt and bread. It is a wacky book.

This may sound like a wacky ritual from a wacky book, but the principal remains relevant today. These Jewish men wanted to ritually cleanse a space so they could build a house. They needed to purify it in order to create a holy space. I’d like to think we don’t have or believe in literal demons today; perhaps our “demons” are bad memories or negative feelings tied to a space. So, creating an emotionally safe space today is equally important – whether at home, at work, at school, at temple or other special places. Just like hundreds of years ago, we can design ways to remove negative feelings and memories from a space and infuse it with positivity.

Our Torah portion this week, Tzav, addresses the same concept, although it is a brief comment that could be easily overlooked. In chapter 8 of Leviticus, during a discussion of the priests’ ordination, one verse describes how Moses uses parts from the animal sacrifice to “purify the alter” and “consecrate it.” Why were both purify and consecrate mentioned? Aren’t they the same thing? When I looked at the Hebrew, I realized they had different purposes. Consecrate is easy: the Hebrew word vay’kadesheihu means to make holy. But the Hebrew words for purify, vay’chatei comes from the same root as sin, which can also be translation as expiation or even redemption. In Biblical times, when a sin offering was made, it was to repair or redeem the mistake that was made; from a ritual perspective it was almost as if the mistake was taken away with the sacrifice.

Perhaps the Hebrew vay’chatei can teach us that when we want to purify a space, we need to perform a ritual to take away any bad memories or feelings that we might associate with the place. If every time we walk into a certain place, we relive a bad memory, that space will never feel good or safe. To make a place holy, we need to repair the space. What a concept! I don’t necessarily have a ritual to offer for the purification; I think it depends on you, your memory, and what you need. It’s in our power to transform spaces into something holy.

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