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Four Cubits - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

I’d like to share with you tonight a story told by Congressman John Lewis, may his memory be for a blessing, in his memoir, Walking In the Wind:

“[A]bout fifteen of us children were outside my aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified…

Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside.

Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.

And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.

And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.

But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.

And we did.”


I heard this story for the first time this summer. I was very moved by the image of 15 frightened children, holding hands, led by Aunt Seneva, walking methodically back and forth across that small, vulnerable house.  Just as Congressman Lewis drew lessons from that experience for the struggles he engaged in as an adult, I began to wonder how it might apply to our moment, to our community, today.

A few things about the story stand out to me.  The first is the acknowledgment of the fear that everyone in that house felt.  No one was feigning bravery or ignoring what was going on. It was a terrifying situation, and it’s clear they all felt it.

It is good to name this, because we have all felt a whole variety of fears over these past months.  Fear of getting sick.  Fear of our loved ones getting sick.  Fear of police violence if we have Black or brown skin, or if our loved ones do.  Fear of what is happening on our planet—wild fires, extreme temperatures, floods, drought.  Fear of losing our job or our apartment; fear for our mental health. Fear of what might happen in the upcoming election.  The list goes on and on.

Lewis’ story tells me that we shouldn’t deny our fear, but that we also don’t have to succumb to it.  We can learn from Aunt Seneva how to respond.

I love that she didn’t do what you might expect a protective adult in that situation to do: to huddle all the children together, to try to embrace them or draw them close to her.  Instead, Aunt Seneva turned this group of frightened children into a determined community of practice.  A community that was practicing grounding themselves—quite literally.  A community that was taking action to resist the forces threatening them.  She did this by having them hold hands, and then having them walk, with purpose.  With that simple instruction she empowered this group of children, teaching them that linked together, their little bodies could hold a house down.

I also appreciate that in order to keep the house down, the children needed to walk towards, not away from, the most unstable spot.  And then once that spot had calmed down, they needed to turn and walk to the next unstable spot. Again, this feels so counter-intuitive.  I can imagine what I would have done in such a situation, most likely cowering in a corner as far from the side of the house lifting up as possible.  But Aunt Seneva had the clarity to see that what was called for in that moment was walking right over to that unsteady spot.  What must that have felt like in those children’s bodies, standing there as the house tried to lift up? And yet they stood their ground, and then did it again, and again.

After I heard this story, I began reflecting on my nearly quarter century at CDT, and what it is that we are doing here together.  I found myself thinking  about our community both as the house in the storm, and as the group of children learning to walk in the wind together.

I know that for many folks, when the pandemic shut-down began, Dorshei Tzedek became a safe haven. Our Shabbat services, Mindful Mornings, the art show, religious school, shivah minyanim, the Voter Mobilization Project, the Avelut group—all of these and more became ways to connect across the quarantine, to not feel so alone. These were, and still are, spaces of refuge from the profound uncertainty we have all been thrust into.  We have a good foundation, and we’ve also encountered unstable moments, as we’ve adapted to our new reality, with no preparation time and no previous experience to call upon.  All told, we can feel good that our house is still standing.

Facing all the storms of injustice in this country, all the unstable corners of our democracy, we also have an opportunity to be like those children, hands joined, walking together.  Congressman Lewis’ reflection on his experience during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s is instructive, where he says:  “[T]he people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.”

I take these words as an invitation and a challenge to us.  It is really hard to be a community of conscience in this historical moment.  There are so many winds trying to tear us apart.  We are a predominantly white community just beginning the work of becoming actively anti-racist. The winds of racism could pull us apart, upend our house, if we are not diligent.  I acknowledge my own mistakes in this realm, and pledge to do better in the new year. I want to figure out how we can keep holding one another’s hands, in the face of mistakes we will inevitably make, in the face of all the bile swirling in the social winds around us.  How can we be a safe haven for those in our community who most need refuge, and also walk forward, hands held, undaunted by the wobbly corners that we’ll encounter?

Then there are the winds of anxiety we all feel, each of us dealing with our own tsurris, our own challenges. These are winds which can blow us into our own corners of the house, isolated from one another. We need to continue to figure out how to hold hands when we can’t physically be close to one another, most likely for many more months.  We need to adapt in our walking, finding new paths, new ways to connect.  I firmly believe we can come through this pandemic stronger as a community, more rooted in personal connection, if we are willing to keep holding hands and keep walking together.

In Hebrew, the word for “walking” is halikha.   It is closely related to the word “halakha,” which is usually translated as Jewish “law.”   But  the word “halakha” has nothing to do with legality.  As a description of Jewish practice, halakha is a way of walking, both individually and collectively.

There is a famous Talmudic teaching attributed to Rabbi Hiyya bar Ami, in the name of Ulla: “Since the day that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the Blessed Holy One has no place but the arba amot, the four cubits of halakha.”  (Brachot 8a)

This is a very weird statement.  A cubit is about one yard; so 4 cubits is about 12 feet.  Rabbi Hiyya claims  that now that we can’t encounter God at the holy Temple, a sense of God’s presence can only be found in a twelve-foot space of halakha.  What in the world does that mean?

One interpretation is that the divine Presence can only be experienced in the beit midrash, the house of study – the place where halakha, Jewish law, was learned and debated by the rabbis.  But I don’t find that interpretation entirely satisfying.  If Rabbi Hiyya wanted to say that God could only be found in the beit midrash, he would have said that.  Instead, he said the Blessed Holy One has no space but the arba amot of halakha.  So I did a little poking around to see what else in the Talmud is defined by “arba amot,” four cubits.

Interestingly, what I found has to do with either a) laws regarding what constitutes a private domain, or b) literal walking.

For example:  according to the rabbis, the smallest possible dimension of what can legally be considered a bayit, a home, is 4 cubits by 4 cubits.  These measurements define the minimum size of a space that needs a mezuzah; it’s also the minimum size for a sukkah.  And in a discussion of the restrictions on carrying objects from one private domain to another on Shabbat, the rabbis specify arba amot, four cubits, as the limit of how far something can be carried.  It seems that arba amot, four cubits help define what makes a physical space a home.

So when Rabbi Hiyya said that since the destruction of the Temple – which was God’s “house” in Jerusalem – the only place the Holy One has in this world is arba amot, perhaps he meant to say that we can now experience God’s presence within our domicile, even if it is—or feels—very small and constricted, just 12 feet square.  Our home, as defined by halakha, becomes God’s home.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, there is a brief digression where two different rabbis talk about walking and encountering God’s presence.  First, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says that “it is prohibited to walk arba amot, four cubits, in an upright posture, for the earth is filled with God’s glory.”  Them we are told that another rabbi, Rav Huna, would not walk arba amot, 4 cubits, with his head uncovered, because, he said, “the Shechina, God’s Presence, is right above my head.”  (Kiddushin 31a)

I am not sure what Rabbi Joshua meant about not walking arba amot in an upright posture because the earth is filled with God’s glory. Perhaps he meant that we should not walk arrogantly, forgetting that we are surrounded by God’s presence.  Or maybe he meant that when we walk, we should do so mindful of the Godliness within and around us, and not just stride around with no awareness. Rav Huna certainly had this awareness, and for him, wearing a kippa, a head-covering, was a way of  acknowledging a sense of the divine Presence right here.  For rabbis Joshua and Huna, the space of four cubits refers literally to  how we walk in this world with a sense of God’s presence.

So, to bring this all together:

We, like the rabbis of the Talmud, are in a time when things are broken; the old ways of doing things don’t work anymore.  Whether it’s the breaking of all our normal routines by the pandemic, or the shattering of complacency about white supremacy, or the inner brokenness we’re feeling, or the breakdown of social and political norms in our society—we too are disoriented, and wondering, where in the world do I find any sense of Godliness, of divine presence, in this world?

And one answer is:  “in the arba amot, the four cubits, of halakha.”   In the four cubits that halachicly define a house – each of our houses, where we have been spending so much time.  Where is Godliness to be found in your home?  What are the objects or spaces in your bayit, your home, that are meaningful to you?  That bring you comfort?   We have an opportunity, over these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, to really think of our homes as our holy spaces, our sanctuaries—in addition to being our makeshift offices and classrooms.  And through the wonders of technology, the arba amot of each of our homes connect to one another in our collective Zoom sanctuary, allowing us to encounter God’s presence even while we are apart.

Where do we experience God’s presence in a time of brokenness?  In the arba amot of our walking together, hands held, moving forward into this year as a community.  This is an invitation to  feel the accompaniment of Shechina, a sense of divine Presence, as we walk into our uncertain future together.

May we have the courage to walk right up to the places where we are unsure, where the floor is lifting, and pick one another up when we stumble.  May we have the ability to hang in there, to not drop hands, even when the winds around us grow stronger.  May we take strength from one another in our halikha, our walking, as well as in our halakha, our Jewish practice, as we learn and pray and meditate and agitate together.  May we find safe haven in our individual homes, and in this larger home we create together, as we enter into the New Year.  L’shanah tovah!

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784