Finding God Over the Fence 

Next month, Jews throughout Baltimore and around the world will attend synagogues in significant numbers. Many will open the Machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, and encounter a language at once familiar and mysterious. The English language contains over 170,000 words. Modern Hebrew, by comparison, has around 33,000. Biblical Hebrew has far fewer, around 8200 words. The rabbis were aware of Hebrew’s terse vocabulary – and therefore the rich potential of many words for layered meaning.  

The first time I discovered the paucity (and potency) of Hebrew was in Jewish summer camp as a child. A counselor explained there was a linguistic connection between the Hebrew word baruch (blessed) and another word, berech (knee). When we bless God, when we say the words “Baruch Ata Heshem” in our central prayer, we bend our knees. Whether this connection is about humility, flexibility or strength, I’m uncertain. Perhaps all of these.

I write frequently on this site about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood where Jewish qualities prevail over Jewish quantity. I also highlight and celebrate my own Reservoir Hill neighborhood in which I live and work. At best, there is holiness to community. It’s a holiness I feel when I encounter friends on the street or welcome newcomers to our shul. Philosopher Martin Buber believed we encounter God in the face of the other, particularly in those with whom we’re more familiar.

So, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that an important Hebrew word for God, Shechinah, is related to the Hebrew word for neighborhood, shechunah. Judaism is not particularly dogmatic. God is one being but not one thing, not limited to one way of being. Shechinah is the divine presence, sometimes understood to be the divine feminine, the aspect of God we humans can access here on earth. Shechinah is the in-dwelling. 

What is a neighborhood, after all? It’s a place in which we and our families dwell, sure, but it’s also sacred if we make it so. A neighborhood can be a place where we live, where we sleep at night or in which we own and occupy a home. Or a neighborhood can be where we discover deeper human connections – and in so doing, the possibilities of God. “Imagine,” said Fred Rodgers, “what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”  

And neighborhoods aren’t just about the people who live there now, they also have history. My house on Eutaw Place was built in 1895. I have images of handwritten deeds going back to its first owners. Sometimes I imagine the Jewish families who lived there in the 1940’s lighting their chanukiah in the window just like we do or African American families listening to Motown in our living room in the 1960’s. A sense of people, plus an awareness of history, can equal an experience of meaning, even holiness.

I’ve never been to Japan, but I’m fascinated by Japanese culture. One key difference between Japanese and American neighborhoods is our naming and numbering systems. In America, streets have names and houses have numbers. In Japan, however, instead of streets (the space in between blocks) having names, blocks have numbers and the space in between the blocks (streets) are without designation. A particular home might be located in District 8, Block 27. Like the U.S., the houses have numbers too, but they don’t necessarily proceed in an orderly fashion up the block. Japanese houses are numbered by the order in which they were built. To know one’s neighbors in Japan is to know who they are, where they live and, to some extent, the history of one’s community. Is this a standard to which we might hold ourselves? Isn’t the space between our homes (both spatial and temporal) a manifestation of something greater?

As we approach our New Year, greater attentiveness to these dynamics could help fashion meaningful paths forward, blurring the boundaries between shechunah and Shechinah, neighborhood and godhood. The Babylonian Talmud teaches: “Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Hospitality is more important even than welcoming the presence of the Shechinah” (Shabbat 127a).

This coming year, what if we didn’t have to choose? 

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