(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...hamakir et m'komo, knowing one's place....
(Leviticus 6:19) Hakohen...yokhlena b'makom kadosh tei'akheil...; ...The priest...shall eat [the offering]; in a sacred place he shall eat...
Rabbi James Michaels has been my friend for many years, and we have shared the joys and challenges of our respective rabbinates with each other. After twenty-eight years in the pulpit, he decided it wasn't the place for him any more. He now serves as the full-time chaplain at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. It is a match made in heaven. Rabbi Michaels teaches Torah and learns Torah. He shared this story about "Sholom" (not his real name), almost 90 years old and suffering from Alzheimer's.
"Sholom had been a prominent rabbi. Always active in social justice causes, he was a fixture at demonstrations for civil rights, Soviet Jewry and welfare rights. Even after he retired twenty years ago, he still participated in these activities, where he stood out because of his handsome appearance and tall stature."
Sholom was a difficult arrival at the Hebrew Home. His Alzheimer's progressed to the point that he could no longer remain with his wife in an independent living unit. He was a demanding and righteously indignant patient in the Alzheimer's unit. Rabbi Michaels, the social worker and activities therapist and even his family found it so hard to meet his demands, at one point Rabbi Michaels half-jokingly suggested he needed his own social worker.
"Sholom had calmed down enough by January for us to bring him to Shabbat services. At first, his wife came with him, but stopped coming when she fell and cracked a rib. One Shabbat morning, Sholom was sitting by himself in the front row as I was leading the service. Although he had difficulty finding the page in the siddur, he responded positively to the Hebrew prayers. Suddenly, he stood up and walked next to me; I asked him if he wanted to lead, and he said he did. Then he proceeded to lead the prayers with skill and competence; he even knew when to bow and turn toward the Ark. He also sang beautifully; I could tell he was actually reading the Hebrew."
The other residents were enthusiastic about Sholom's participation, and prayer has become an important aspect of Sholom's regimen, encouraged by rabbi, social worker and therapist alike.
The method of acquiring Torah on which I focus this week can be understood two ways. The first is as the familiar idiom "knowing your place" that has both literal and figurative meaning in Hebrew and English. Sometimes a matter of good manners and sometimes an excuse for repression, the phrase suggests that there is an appropriate location for an individual to express himself or herself. The priest who offered the purification sacrifice knew the place in which he was to consume it -- the courtyard of the Tabernacle. Anywhere else was "not his place." Sholom was once a respected leader and now felt himself reduced in circumstance. Yet, when he arrived in "his place" – the synagogue facility – Torah flowed through him.
In later Hebrew, the word makom means not just place, but God. It is possible to accurately misread hamakir et m'komo to mean, "knowing one's God." Alzheimer's robbed Sholom of much of his sense of self, but the deeply rooted sense of connection to God enabled words of Torah and lessons of Torah to penetrate even the fog of dementia that so frustrated him. Standing in his "place," Sholom knew his God. He continues to be redeemed by that knowledge.
Rabbi Michaels concludes his story this way: "From a strictly clinical standpoint, it could be suggested that Sholom was like the proverbial retired fire horse that heard the bell. Maybe so, but I believe that something more is at play: something in Sholom's soul is yearning for expression to God; the Hebrew and melodies of traditional prayers reach deep and touch him as nothing else can. As the other professionals and I brought Sholom into God's presence, Sholom has also allowed God to touch me."
How can you cultivate hamakir et m'komo? I offer a short-term technique and a much longer-term technique. Short: do an honest assessment of your Jewish learning – are you a novice, an intermediate or an expert? Reach for a text that will spur you on to the next level, neither one too easy nor one too difficult. (That is, don't choose something elementary that does not challenge you, nor something dense and complex just for the prestige of wrestling with concepts.) Long: set aside a place dedicated to study and reflection and use it for nothing else. Choose a corner of your den or bedroom, where there is a comfortable chair, and sit there to learn. Or, frequent a beit midrash, library or classroom just to learn Torah; be sure to have a fixed seat. Or, find that spot under a tree, in a garden, beside the water that inspires you as you study Torah. You will come to know your place.