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Place and Time and Rest

‘Across the Jordan, things will be different,” Moses warns his listeners. “Up to now, everyone has done as he pleased.” In Canaan, though, things will be properly regulated; sacrifices will be made only in “the place where God will choose to establish His name.” In Deuteronomy 12:9, Moses uses two words to describe that promised land: menuhah, meaning “rest” or “resting place,” and nahalah, the term for one’s ancestral landholding, the primary form of wealth. The two terms reappear in the next verse as verbs: “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Eternal your God is giving-as-an-inheritance (manhil) to you and he gives-rest (ve-heniah) to you from all your enemies round about….”

The two nouns, “rest” and “inheritance,” are really one — a hendiadys, to use the Greek term for a single idea expressed in two words joined by a conjunction. (Think of “sick and tired,” a phrase that describes neither illness nor fatigue.) One is truly at rest only when one lives on the land that one’s family owns, the land that is inalienably home. Anywhere else you live might turn out to be temporary — a lesson that Jews have learned time and again.

The Land of Israel is termed menuhah (“rest”) in a few places in the Bible. When King Solomon dedicates the Temple, for example, he thanks God for having granted “rest” to the Jewish people — the safe haven of the Land, now complete with its place of central worship. The paired terms menuhah and nahalah, though, appear nowhere else in the Bible. That doesn’t mean, however, that as a pair they then disappear from Jewish literature. They do, in fact, reappear. But then they refer, strikingly, to something quite different.

The liturgy for the Sabbath contains, as part of the Amidah prayer recited four times that day, a paragraph that includes this clause: “Lovingly and willingly, Adonai our God, grant-us-as-inheritance [hanhilenu] Your holy Shabbat, so that the people who hallow Your name will always find-rest [yanuhu] on this day.” No one familiar with the biblical use of the roots of these terms can help but notice that the two verbs describing the Israelites’ activities are those of the Deuteronomic pair, menuhah and nahalah.

Another usage in the Sabbath liturgy pairs our two terms even more closely. The first blessing after the preliminary prayers on Shabbat morning includes this request: “Let [all creatures] accord honor and greatness to God, Sovereign, Creator of all, who grants-as-inheritance rest [manhil menuhah] to His people Israel in His holiness.” By using one of our roots as a noun and the other as a verb, no conjunction comes between them. They are brought together even more tightly than in the Bible.

The difference between the biblical and liturgical pairings of “rest” and “inheritance/landholding” is stark and striking. In the prayer book, what we inherit is not our family’s ancestral landholding, not the Holy Land as a whole — in fact, not land at all. Instead, the core of the Jewish heritage, that which we receive from our ancestors and hold in trust for our descendants, is a holy day: the Sabbath. “Rest” is not relief from travel; it is respite from travail, in the root sense of that word — “work.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his classic book “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man,” venerated holiness in time, and until late in life, Heschel paid little attention to the centrality of space — of the Holy Land — in Jewish thinking. In this he reflects the great trend of Jewish history ever since the destruction of the Second Temple. With Jerusalem in ruins, Jewish sovereignty shattered and masses of Jews leaving Eretz Yisrael, the sages of Judaism’s formative period needed a substitute for the ancestral territory. They found it not elsewhere in space but in something far more portable: the Jewish calendar. Sacredness could be encountered wherever one lived, they pointed out, not only in the Temple in Jerusalem.

As Heschel put it: “The higher goal of spiritual living is […] to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.”

The challenge of our own generation is to know how to take both experiences — the sacred times of our calendar and the sacred space of our ancestral homeland, both now readily accessible to us — and bring them together to forge a spiritual life of which our ancestors could only dream.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman teaches at Hebrew College Online and at the Rothberg International School of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he serves as president of the Israel region of the (Masorti/Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly.

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