A Holy Container | Congregation Beth Am

A Holy Container

Cantor Jaime Shpall

One of the most wonderful things about our Jewish tradition is the way it calls upon us to mark time. We are a people that likes to stop and smell the roses. We mark our time weekly and seasonally with our Shabbat and holiday observances, and we mark time with our rich lifecycle traditions.

Right off the bat when a baby is born, we join together to celebrate. The community leans in and supports the family with love, gifts and food. I remember how important our community was for us when Ella and Sam were born. Marcel and I were at our most vulnerable. Our predictable existence had been turned upside down. We were so focused on trying to keep these minute, fragile creatures alive that we forgot everything else, from making sure we ate to remembering the day of the week. And, in the midst of that turmoil, our family and community gathered around us, and created the most holy space imaginable. They lifted us up in joy and supported us through our uncertainty with love. Sam and Ella’s bris and naming remains one of my most treasured memories.

The years go by and more lifecycles come and go. We joyfully celebrate as loved ones stand beneath the chuppah, we mourn with our friends and family during times of loss, and we join together as a community to celebrate when our children reach the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Va’asu Li Mikdash V’shachanti B’tocham (Ex 25:1)

In the book of Exodus, God instructs the Israelites saying, “Make me a holy space so that I may dwell among you." This quote comes from Parashat Terumah, the part in the Torah where the Israelites are camped out by the foot of Mount Sinai and are about to begin their desert wanderings. They are instructed to bring gifts from the heart, their finest materials, to create a tabernacle, a holy place that would travel with them on their journey through the vast wilderness. How wonderful for the Israelites. They had a beautiful and holy place, filled with their most precious treasures. They would congregate there, together with their community of friends and family, and when they did, God’s presence would dwell among them.

The tabernacle in the wilderness is a powerful metaphor even in our own time. We, too, create a mikdash, a holy space — a holy container — when we intentionally come together as a community at significant times in our lives. Like our ancestors, we sometimes feel as if we’re wandering in a wilderness — a confusing, unstable place where it’s hard to discern the right direction. Without the support of the community, it would be easy to feel adrift, especially during times of transition and upheaval — birth, adolescence, marriage and the death of our loved ones. It is precisely during these times that we come together, celebrate together and mourn together — and in doing so, we become aware of the Shechina, the presence of God that dwells in our midst. This was God’s gift to the Israelites, and it has sustained us as a people until today.

The way that we celebrate when a child in our community reaches the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah is all about the holy container that we build. Jewish tradition says that at the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a person begins to see that the world is not perfect, that indeed it is broken and fractured. Our 12- and 13-year-olds are beginning to realize this and are beginning to feel the power of their own voices and actions. We cherish this move from child to adult, from student to teacher. We also acknowledge that this is a time that can be fraught with upheaval. Adolescence! I can’t remember a more tumultuous time, with the braces, the pimples and all the drama. It is truly a time of transition. We honor our young people, not just for who they are becoming, but for who they are at this moment in time, braces and all.

Just as the Israelites brought gifts of the heart to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, so we ask our B’nei Mitzvah to bring their best gifts. They prepare their Torah portions meticulously and they dig deep to reveal their own wisdom and teaching. They also clean up beautifully, get haircuts and wear special clothes. We gather together on Shabbat morning, as a family and as a community, to create a holy space around them. We support them and honor them. And in each budding adult, we become aware of God’s presence among us.

The main focus of the Beth Am B’nei Mitzvah Revolution has been to help foster a holy community among the cohort of kids as well as among their families and our greater Beth Am community.

This month our 6th graders and their families will be heading up to Camp Newman for our second annual family retreat. We will celebrate Shabbat in the mountains, learn and play together, deepen and build our relationships with one another, and begin to fortify the walls of our mikdash (holy container). It’s sure to be a wonderful time!

My hope for all of our members is to create a container, a holy place, where we can feel safe and grounded, a place where we can bring our best gifts of self, and in doing so feel God’s presence dwelling among us.


Congregation Beth Am
  • 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
  • (650) 493-4661 Contact Us

We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).