God told Moses, “And let them make Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.”
Congregation Bnai Israel is joyously embarked on a program to follow that instruction found in this week’s reading from the Torah. One could interpret this instruction as a commandment personally binding on each of us. Everyone who is making a contribution to the capital campaign to build our new home could be said to be fulfilling this commandment in a very physical sense.
Signs of activity are starting to appear at the construction site for our new sanctuary in Sylvania. Within a week they should start clearing the trees and making the preparations for physically building our new home. With God’s help, when I talk to you about this week’s parsha, Terumah, next year, it will be in our new home.
But God doesn’t immediately dwell in the portable sanctuary constructed for Him in the wilderness…we’re not told that God moves in until we get to the very last parsha in the book of Exodus.
This is quite contrary to what we find in the story of Jacob when he embarks on his journey from Beersheva to Haran to flee from Esau. He stops for the night at the future site of the Temple, and when he awakes in the morning he is somewhat startled, and says “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it!”
My colleague Rabbi Jacob Chinitz raises the question: which is sadder? When we build a sanctuary and God refuses to dwell in it, or when God is there and we do not respond to the holiness of the place?
These two different phenomenon, building a home for God but not finding him there, and being in a place where God is present and not noticing are really two sides of the same coin.
To start with, why do we need to build a sanctuary for God at all? Didn’t the prophet Isaiah teach us m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo, the whole world is full of God’s glory? Doesn’t that mean that God’s glory is found just as much at Franklin Park Mall as it is here in the synagogue?
It is true that God’s presence is equally “there” everywhere. There is no place that is devoid of the presence of God. In Psalm 139 we are told “If I ascend up to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!”
The verse tells us that even in the depths of Hell – or in the food court at the mall – God is there.
God may be there – but what’s different is us. We need the sanctuary because we often need the crutch of a designated place to be able to feel God’s presence. There are too many distractions at the shopping center for us to pay attention to God’s presence.
That explains why we need a sanctuary. But in the verse in this week’s parsha, God says asu LI mikdash, make ME a sanctuary. Why does God need the sanctuary?
There is a teaching which says that God’s most precious and prized possession is the Torah–that God feels so closely connected with His Torah, that in this week’s parsha when God says “take for me an offering,” he was offering us the Torah, and in a sense Himself with it. The Midrash says this is like a king of flesh and blood who had just one daughter, and a king from a neighboring country wanted to marry her and bring her back to his kingdom. The king said “I can’t possibly stand to be separated from my precious daughter, why don’t you build a small apartment for me in your palace where I can live at your place, because I couldn’t tolerate being separated from my daughter.” So God is telling Israel, I’m giving you my precious Torah, but make a small space for me so I can live among you, with my Torah. God commands us “make a Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them” so he can be with us and His Torah.
Not only is the Torah precious to God, but each and every one of us is precious to God. God loves us. God wants to spend time with us.
One night last week I participated in an interfaith panel exploring fundamental teachings of different religions. A few of the speakers said the one message they would share with a child is that “God is all love.” The first person to convey this message was an evangelical minister who right after he said “God is all love” said that the ONLY path to salvation is through accepting Christ—in other words, he believes I am going to Hell because I don’t accept Jesus as my savior. I had a little trouble reconciling that with the idea that God is “all love.”
However, even if I don’t believe everything that minister said, I do believe that God is love, and that God loves us, Her children. And the Holy One wants that place to dwell among us.
It has been very exciting for me to be actively involved in the process of designing our new home for God. The hazzan and I, the entire building committee, and especially our lead architect, our congregant Abe Musher-Eizenman, have been very concerned about wanting to build a facility where we will really be able to feel God’s presence. Anyone who has been on a tour of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe knows that physical spaces properly done can invoke a very special feeling.
I don’t want to sound a discouraging note about the building process, God forbid, yet I have to admit that in my years of visiting lots of synagogues, the places where I have most strongly felt God’s presence have not been the most physically impressive spaces.
One place I have strongly felt God’s presence is at the Friday night service at the Breslov minyan in my old neighborhood of Katamon in Jerusalem. The synagogue is a strictly functional building. The “sanctuary” is a room probably about twice the size of our chapel, with hardly any natural light, no distinctive architectural features, but filled with a few hundred men. They take about twenty minutes to sing Lecha Dodi, every stanza to a different tune, everyone present singing at the top of their lungs. Some weeks when they come to the verse “God will rejoice with you as a groom rejoices with his bride” everyone dances and jumps up and down. It definitely feels like God is dancing with you.
But it doesn’t necessarily take a big crowd or dancing to feel God’s presence. Not far from where I lived in LA when I was going to rabbinical school there is a small synagogue called Beth Meier. Beth Meier is not only homely, it is, to put it bluntly, the ugliest synagogue I have ever prayed in. It was converted from a private home, the ceilings are low, the lighting is inadequate, the décor is from the 1970s. A typical Shabbat morning crowd was about 20 people. Sometimes it was a struggle to have a minyan. But when Rabbi Meir Schimmel, z”l, led services, he made sure you knew you were in God’s house—and he radiated the sense of being in God’s presence. I hope Rabbi Schimmel’s successor, my classmate Rabbi Aaron Benson, learned how to do that from the master before he passed away.
So if God’s presence in the synagogue is not contingent on the brilliance of the architect (no offense Abe), what does it depend on? Why are we sometimes disappointed that we build a house for God and it seems like hardly anyone comes, and we wonder whether God comes?
It’s because what we need to do is to build the dwelling place for God within ourselves. If we build a home for God in our hearts, God will be in our building. If we have a home for God in our hearts, perhaps we won’t have Jacob’s surprise of waking up surprised that God was there and we missed it.
A dwelling place for God in our hearts is in many ways superior to a physical space, like the Tabernacle or a synagogue. If we have a space in our hearts for God, we can bring God with us wherever we go, not just when we come to shul. If we don’t have a space in our heart for God, we’re not going to be aware of God’s presence even when we do come together in the synagogue to pray.
But how do we do this? How do we make a space in our hearts for God?
It’s about having a relationship with God. And in many ways a relationship with God is like a relationship with a person. If you want to have a relationship with someone, you need to spend some time with them. You need to get to know them.
This is why traditional Judaism brings us many moments during the day and during the week to spend time with God. One of my teachers, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, said that the point of praying three times a day was not so much that you should say certain words three times a day, but that it provides us with time to “check in with God” three times a day. Just like in your family—you see them in the morning, you see them in the evening, and many of us will just “check in” with our wife or husband with a phone call sometime during the day. I call Lauri every day around lunchtime, whether or not it’s because I want her to fix my lunch. We stay in close contact with the ones we love.
It’s the same way with God. If you want to have a relationship with God, if you want to make a dwelling place for God, it’s not enough to come to shul a few times a year, or even every week. A real intimate relationship with God means God should be part of your daily life. This does not necessarily have to mean praying three times a day with a siddur in your hand, although that’s not a bad way—there are many other options as well. We can connect with God through studying Torah. We can connect with God through remembering to say a blessing before and after we eat. We can connect with God by remembering to treat God’s creations with respect. One of the simplest techniques is to simply talk to God. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov recommends talking to God the way you would talk to a good friend, pour your heart out to God, ask God for every little thing that you might need in life, give thanks to God for all the good things that have come your way, ask God to help you in figuring out what to do with your life. Saying even just the six words of the first line from the Shema—“Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Echad,” twice a day is a way to bring in a reminder of God.
But even with regular “checking in,” any relationship also needs some “quality time,” and that’s what Shabbat is about. Another way that we can fulfill the commandment to create a dwelling place for God is to make God’s dwelling place a sanctuary in time instead of in space. Shabbat acknowledges that we are not yet able to create a perfect world in the greater world around us—instead it gives us a taste of what that perfect world would be like, as we strive to create a perfect world for 25 hours a week. A world of peace and love and harmony, a world of good meals, good wine, good friends. And an aspect of Shabbat that is really nice is that God is not selfish—that “quality time” that we can spend with God on Shabbat is also quality time with our friends and families.
By taking the time to create a holy space in our lives on Shabbat, we draw that holiness into our lives in a way that can nourish us the rest of the week. We help sustain a dwelling place for God that is portable, permanent, and for which we always have the key.
There is a story I’ve shared before, which bears repeating. The Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once asked his students, where is God found? His students, being scholars, knew their Bible, and responded with the verse from Isaiah I mentioned earlier: m’lo col ha’aretz k’vodo, the whole world is full of His glory—in other words, God’s presence is everywhere. The Kotzker shook his head, and said, “no, God is wherever we let God in.”
This morning’s Haftorah, a selection from Kings I, tells us how to let God in. God tells Solomon “Concerning this house which you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, and execute my judgments, and keep all my commandments to walk in them; then will I perform my word with you, which I spoke to David your father; And I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.” One of the ways Jews “let God in” is through lovingly following the commandments given in the Torah.
Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, we already asked you this before in our prayers this morning, but maybe we weren’t paying close enough attention. Please God, open our eyes to Your Torah, help our hearts cleave to Your mitzvot. Help us to be aware of your loving presence around us at all times,