The mystical importance of location in Judaism

Just as righteous people leave behind permanent marks of holiness, so, too, sinners leave behind tainted marks.

 THE MYSTICAL valence of a location is determined by what had been there beforehand. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
THE MYSTICAL valence of a location is determined by what had been there beforehand.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

“And Jacob departed from Beersheba and went to Haran” (Genesis 28:10). The sages asked why the verse needs to detail that Jacob departed from where he lived: Wouldn’t traveling to Haran, perforce, entail leaving Beersheba?

The sages explained that the departure of a righteous person from a place is a local event worth noting. A righteous person is the glory, the glow and the grandeur of the location. Thus, when the righteous person leaves, that location loses its luster (Genesis Rabbah 68:6; Ruth Rabbah 2:12).

The early hassidic master Rabbi Yehiel Michel of Zlotshov (1731-1786) offered a creative reading of this rabbinic exegesis. His bold interpretation went against the grain of the rabbinic tradition by focusing on what the righteous person leaves behind at the time of departure, rather than what that person takes away.

His explanation began with a question: Why would the Torah highlight the gloomy atmosphere when a righteous person departs? Surely, the Torah would prefer to emphasize only the positive aspects of the righteous person’s arrival in a new location? Rabbi Yehiel Michel explained that even when righteous people depart, they leave behind a lasting holy mark. An element of the glory, glow and grandeur remains.

He acknowledged that there is a flip side to the holy indicators left by the righteous: Just as righteous people leave behind permanent marks of holiness, so, too, sinners leave behind tainted marks.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

This notion can be found in the first verse of Psalms: “Fortunate is the person who does not follow the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scorners” (Psalms 1:1). The verse warns against sitting “in the seat of scorners”; even when the scorners are no longer present, a person should avoid their location, for it has been blotted by their foolishness and frivolity.

The hassidic master from Zlotshov understood that these mystical marks could be sensed by righteous people. Thus a place tainted by the mark of sinners could hinder the ability to learn and teach Torah in that location. On a personal note, Rabbi Yehiel Michel added: “And as for us – even though we do not have such clear vision, nevertheless we are able to perceive this [mark].”

The existence of these indelible marks is a common theme in hassidic teachings about our relationship to location. Thus, for example, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786) explained that Abraham was instructed to travel the length and breadth of the Promised Land (Genesis 13:17) in order to leave marks of holiness for his descendants. Rabbi Elimelech explained that whenever there are these holy mystical marks, it is easier to sanctify the location and actualize the spiritual potential of the place.

A third early hassidic master also mentioned these mystical marks. Rabbi Moshe Hayim Efrayim of Sudilkov (1742- or 1748-1800) in his Degel Mahane Efrayim waxed on the spiritual valence of the place of dwelling of saintly predecessors, when explaining the verse “And Jacob dwelled in the land in which his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Jacob lived in Canaan, but his chosen place of residence was “the land in which his father had sojourned” because he could sense the holy mark that endured from his saintly father.

Playing on the rabbinic adage “one good deed brings [another] good deed” (Avot 4:2), the Degel creatively extended the maxim: “Because location is a catalyst, and one good deed brings [another] good deed, and holiness brings [more] holiness.”

The Degel concluded his brief discussion with an inclusive and far-reaching statement: “And this matter occurs constantly, with every person and in every era.”

Thus the Degel suggested that it is not just the spiritually adept who are affected by these mystical marks; every person in every time period might be impacted by the marks left behind by previous generations.

RABBI YEHIEL MICHEL of Zlotshov, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and the Degel struck deterministic chords in their explanations. The mystical valence of a location is determined by what had been there beforehand. A place populated by sinners is desecrated, while a place where righteous people had sojourned is marked with holiness. These marks exist even when the particular people – righteous or evil – are no longer there.

Yet hassidic thought also offered a different perspective on the mystical valence of places, focusing on the inherent spiritual potential of a place rather than the marks left by previous generations. According to this reading, the final spiritual quality of a place is not predetermined by its previous tenants.

Every place has divine sparks of holiness. Those sparks might be well hidden, but they are ever-present, waiting to be redeemed. This idea is rooted in the kabbalistic notion of raising the sparks and repairing our spiritually fragmented world. Being in a location, therefore, challenges those present to elevate that place’s unique sparks, or – Heaven forfend – denigrate those sparks.

In this way, location has a paradoxical spiritual nature. On one hand, places have existing mystical valences determined by those who were there in the past. Righteous people left behind holy marks, while evil people left tainted blotches. These indelible marks can be perceived by spiritually sensitive people and may affect each sojourner. On the other hand, each place offers a challenge and an opportunity to repair the location and elevate it to a loftier spiritual plan.

Thus hassidism maintains the business of building upon the saintly wealth and indelible value of places sanctified by our ancestors. At the same time, Hassidism seeks to elevate the latent divinity of places that do not have a rich heritage of Jewish spiritual depth. ■

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.