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Can You Have a Downtown Without a City?

Friday, 22 May, 2020 - 8:16 am

Remember downtown?

Whether you live in Boise or Boston, downtown just isn’t what it used to be. No, I’m not referring to whether downtown has been gentrified or not, whether it is the city’s financial district or whether it is home to endless millennials in condos or homeless camps.

I’m talking about the fact that downtown vibrancy has changed recently. There are simply less people on the streets. Which makes many people wonder whether the allure and necessity of downtowns will return.

The truth is that downtown is a bit of a strange word. Usually it refers to the historic core of the city or the center of commerce. But, it’s not necessarily lower. Nor is it always south on a map.

The concept of cities having a central place for trade, culture and socializing is probably as old as cities themselves.

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In this week’s parsha Bamidbar we learn about the first downtown in Jewish history. Incredibly, Jews had a downtown before they had their own land – let alone a city.

The Torah sets out the encampments of the Jewish people during their travels in the wilderness for nearly four decades.

In the center was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Surrounding it were the Priests and Levites. Outside the ring of Levites were four encampments of the rest of the Jewish people, three tribes on each side.

It was a rather cumbersome setup. But, it was critical for the Jewish people to remember that the center of their identity was the Mishkan. It was their downtown, the focal point of their civilization.

Here’s the interesting part. The Mishkan was mainly out of bounds for ordinary Jews. Only Kohanim (Priests) and Leviim (Levites) were granted regular access. Unlike ordinary downtowns, this was not the center of commerce. It was not even the center of religious life for the overwhelming majority of Jews.

So the Jews had a downtown that was inaccessible. Why would G-d design a ‘city’ in such a way that demanded a downtown that excluded ordinary activity? Imagine if downtown was always cordoned off. That would be a huge inconvenience, especially if it’s the geographic center.

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When I visit the Holy Land, I always make sure to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Kotel is essentially the holiest site in Jewish tradition today. This wall served as the retaining wall surrounding the entire Temple Mount. Most of that wall was destroyed and today only this wall remains.

Approaching the Kotel is always more-or-less from one direction. This is due to the fact that the area behind the Kotel is off-limits. It is currently administered by Muslim authorities.

More, importantly, this is the site of the Holy Temple and is considered holy by Jews. Even today, it is off-limits to Jews who are not ritually pure.

As I make my way toward the Kotel I am filled with awe. The awe intensifies as I realize this is only the border of true holiness. In truth, the Kotel is not the ultimate spiritual destination. In ancient times, the Kotel represented the line of demarcation, the checkpoint to a holier space.

Having a space that is so holy it is off limits helps me understand the true nature of holiness. It helps me understand how Awesome my Creator really is. Hopefully, that inspires me to upgrade my own holiness.

Downtowns are designed for mundane activity – such as business, art and entertainment.

Spiritual downtowns are designed to anchor our communities and identities with the humility and focus of what is truly sacred. For that, it’s sometimes more effective when they aren’t as readily accessible. They are extraordinary when they can’t be utilized ordinarily.

Let us pray that our material downtowns are soon thriving with safe social interaction and economic vitality. And, let us pray that our synagogues and holy sites – the true focus of our lives – are replete with healthy congregants.

Better yet, let’s pray that our collective synagogue, the Holy Temple, is rebuilt soon. At that time, we won’t need checkpoints and restrictions to remind us about the value of holiness.

And, we certainly won’t have external barriers preventing us from holy gatherings.

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