I, like many of you, have been in many sanctuaries. Some are very majestic, cathedral like with vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows, some with the bima tall and remote. Others are much smaller, ornate in a different way; some with a low-to-the-floor bima in the center of the room. Some we can connect to, others we cannot. We place so much emphasis on the sanctuaries of our synagogues, but the first question to be asked is: Can a physical space be holy in and of itself?
Before the creation of the first mishkan (sanctuary) in Torah, the Hebrews worshiped God on hilltops, beside streams, or wherever they felt moved to pray. Abraham and Isaac traveled to Mount Moriah. Rebecca confronted God in her own tent. Jacob encountered God in a lonely place in the desert. Moses met God at an ordinary bush in the land of Midian and at the top of Mount Sinai in the wilderness. Miriam praised God at the banks of the Sea of Reeds.
It was only after the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt, and after they accepted God’s Torah at Mount Sinai, that they were commanded to build a sanctuary. The instructions for erecting this sanctuary are given in great detail in this week’s parasha, T’rumah. The sanctuary was designed for performing sacred rituals, which included the offering of sacrifice and prayer to God.
Torah seeks to clarify the purpose of the sanctuary when God instructs Moses to tell the people, “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them” (Exod.25:8). What do these words really mean? Was God telling the people that without a sanctuary, a building, a place for the Ark of the Covenant, they would not sense the Divine presence in their lives? Does God truly require a building in order to “dwell” among human beings? What does it mean for God to “dwell within” the people? What does this tell us about our relationship with God?
Commentators are intrigued by the notion that God will not dwell in the sanctuary, but rather, within them, within the people. And, it is the physical act itself of building the sanctuary that will cause God to dwell within the people. The sanctuary is not for God, it is for the people; it is to be a visible symbol of God’s presence in their midst, a visible focus for the idea of God’s indwelling.
We learn is that it is not the physical space itself that causes God’s presence to come into our midst, and it is not the physical space itself that is holy. Rather, it is the involvement of the community, expending its labor on God’s behalf, the act of joining together to make a sacred space. Indeed, the indwelling of God among the people cannot take place as long as the people are passive, doing nothing to help bring the sacred into the world. God is saying, “My dwelling among them is on the condition that THEY make the sanctuary.” We must do the building to glorify God. This is emphasized in the text by the Hebrew verb, la’asot (to make). In fact, it occurs 200 times in the story of the building of the sanctuary. The task of bringing holiness into the world, the main obligation of every Jew, has always been seen in the Tanach as a partnership, a combined project of humans and God. Holiness can be manifested in three dimensions: space, time, and the person. It is said that God desires to encounter human beings by meeting them halfway as partners– in space, by the building of the sanctuary in time; for the Shabbat, which God sanctified and commanded us to sanctify; and in each person, through the mitzvot which bring us into God’s presence every time we fulfill them.
“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
We know now that the real meaning of the verse is about much more than nails and wood. We are guided to work together to build holiness; then God will dwell with us. When we engage in sacred work, God is in our midst. We all have experienced what the text is trying to suggest. We only need to think of those times when we’ve been involved in something truly meaningful – something we can feel is holy work.
When we volunteer with one of the many social justice projects here at Jeremiah – Feed the Hungry, Backpack Blessings, Family Promise, Eat and Be Well, or any other mitzvah opportunity we choose – we can sense that what we are doing is something truly meaningful. When we reach out to people around us, listen, care, being 100% present with them, be that stranger, friend, or family member, we are involved in something truly meaningful, something we can feel is holy work. We know, that in those moments, what we are doing really matters, feeling a strong connection to the person sitting right next to you. Our time, energy and compassion are appreciated. Through our kindness and good deeds, we create a sacred space, a sanctuary of a sort, and God is right there with us.
This Torah portion, indeed, teaches us that building a sanctuary is not only about a room with chairs and a bimah and an ark. Parasha T’rumah makes it clear that God will dwell among us, be with us, but only as a result of what we choose to do when we are with others – our friends, peers, congregants, and family – in any space. Each of us can build holiness and kindness and help create love and fairness, in any space we are present. Each one of us can choose to turn an everyday gathering into something that is sacred. We can model “derech eretz” (live with mencshlikite); we can reach out to those who are left out. Every day we can make our gatherings into sanctuaries, and God will be right there with us.