Understand the “thin places” where heaven and earth meet

I am a reformed cantor, educated at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the seminary that trains liberal Jewish clergy. I practice and teach normative Judaism. There is nothing extraordinary in what I think or what I teach.

During my student years, I studied the sacred books of the Jewish people, in addition to all aspects of Jewish music and other topics related to functioning as a Jewish professional. We approached the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism.

I am not a particularly mystical person but rather intellectual and rational. However, I have had times in my life when I felt the divine presence. These moments came during the great holiday services when my voice rises, connecting to the generations of Jews before me and I feel like the Almighty is singing through me. These moments have only happened a few times in my 38 years as an ordained cantor. Would I describe this as a mystical experience? Yes I would like.

On the other hand, I did not live a mystical experience provoked by a place. That is, until last month when I was visiting my children in Israel. I recently read an article titled “Understanding ‘Thin Places’ (Where Heaven and Earth Meet).” It was written by the Crossing team on their blog, The Crossing Blog.

It begins with a paraphrase of a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “After decades of wandering, it is only now that a pattern is emerging. I have found that I am drawn to places that seduce and inspire, calm and stir, places where, for a few moments of happiness, I loosen my deadly grip on life and can breathe again. The writer continues: “It turns out that these destinations have a name: Thin Places.

“Thin places are places where the distance between heaven and earth collapses, and we are able to glimpse the Divine, or the Transcendent – or, as I like to think, the Infinite.” Thin Places are places on earth that allow people to experience God’s presence in a real and tangible way. Mystics believed this and there is a place in Israel where Jews who believe in Kabbalah and study the Zohar go to experience the “thinness” of the world. This is the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Rashbi as he is called, where he is believed to be buried. The Rashbi are believed to be the origin of Jewish mysticism. The tomb is located on Mount Meron in northern Israel near the mystical city of Safed.

The Rashbi spent 14 years in a cave fleeing the oppression of the Romans who defeated Jerusalem. During these 14 years, he laid the foundations of the mystical tradition. Thousands of people come to his grave as it is believed to be one of the holiest sites in the world.

My husband and I decided to visit the tomb. Most of the people who visit the tomb are Hasidim, quite observant individuals. The tomb is separated by a wall – the women on one side, the men on the other. The services that were conducted from the men’s side were easily heard by the women so that they could be involved in the men’s prayer. In the middle of the room, there was a big rock covered with a cloth and the women were standing around it, touching it and praying. I was the only woman in jeans. I didn’t look like anyone else. I went to the rock and placed my hand on it and offered prayers to the Almighty. I didn’t expect to feel anything special. What happened next was that I felt the presence of God.

I am a Reform Jew, but this ancient place filled with worshipers moved me and I understood why they visited the Rashbi’s final resting place. It was a place on the thin line between heaven and earth. Of course, this is an inexplicable event. I can’t understand exactly what I felt or why I did it. It was just one of those times in life when, to paraphrase the unlikely mystic Ludwig Wittgenstein, speaking is insufficient and all you can do is point.

Cantor Ellen Sussman is cantor and spiritual leader of Allentown Shirat Shalom Temple.

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