Shabbat shalom. My portion is Parashat Terumah. In parashat Terumah God gives instructions to the Israelites in the desert to build the mishkan or the tabernacle. There are more verses devoted to the building of the tabernacle than to the creation of the world! Parashat Terumah talks about everything from materials to dimensions to how many of what should go where.
At the time when Terumah is set, the Israelites have just escaped from Egypt and are becoming a free people. This brings up a dilemma; is working and building under god any better than working and building under pharaoh or a task master?
The Hebrew word avad (ayin, vet, daled) is the root of the word slave avadim, but also the roots of the Hebrew word for worship and work avodah. Where do you draw the line between slavery, work and worship? Rabbi Elyse Goldstein comes to the rescue here with the comment that it is about whether it elevates or diminishes you. When the Israelites where slaves in Egypt, they were forced to work and treated as subhuman. That diminished them. In their service to god, they were told to work to build a place for them to connect to god and to each other. That elevated them. A place to connect and ask for help was much more that pharaoh ever gave them.
Zahava Lambert (a family friend and lecturer on Judaica) commented in discussion with me that God asking for the mishkan to be built was because the golden calf was proof that the Israelites needed to build—for all those years in Egypt, the people were used to building for those above them, and now that they were out of Egypt, they felt the need to do the same. Building cities for Pharoah, then building the Golden Calf, then building the Mishkan! They also needed something to look at in order to feel comfortable worshiping. In Egypt, all the people who worshipped had idols to look at, so the Jews were used to a system of belief that involved a physical object.
In my opinion, we don’t build a mishkan anymore because we’ve eased out of needing to build in order to worship. We haven’t quite eased out of the need to have a physical object, because we use the Torah as a focal point but it has not become our Golden Calf. We still build shuls but they’re not as precisely built as the mishkan. That’s because we should be working towards building stronger communities as opposed to nicer buildings.
The torah scholar Nahmanides said that “The redemption and the giving of the Torah were designed to return us to this level of direct personal connection with God” so he suggests that the torah is our connection to god. He goes on to say that while we were in Egypt we lost our connection and the purpose of the mishkan is to give it back. I disagree for several reasons. One, I don’t think that our relationship with god or Judaism is reliant on a mishkan. Case in point; we don’t have a mishkan but we still have Judaism. Reason two, the Jews made it out of Egypt together. They couldn’t have lost their connection with an idea of god because they all identified as Jews and their connection to the Jewish God was what made them a part of the Jewish people.
The truth is we have no way to know exactly what happened. Unlike the temples in Jerusalem there is no archeological evidence that the mishkan in the dessert ever existed. I don’t think that it’s important whether or not the mishkan was ever built because it wasn’t a good tool to build a society. There was a religious hierarchy where the high priests were taken care of and had power while everyone else needed to look after themselves, and in a modern Jewish community we don’t have that.
It makes sense now that we don’t worship the way that we did at the mishkan (if there was one). For one thing, all the animal parts might get messy and for another, that kind of worship wasn’t a good way to build a strong, welcoming community.
At City Shul we don’t just build for God. We build a community in which everyone is safe and welcomed. There isn’t the same kind of control over people through religion that there was at the mishkan. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein comments that having a welcoming community makes it easier to feel God, and I think that praying to God makes it easier to feel community. At City Shul, the physical space and the work that went into it aren’t that important compared to the community that we build.
Writing about the half-shekel tax put upon the people to build the mishkan, Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion here in Toronto says the following in his own words: “One cannot be forced to feel the presence of G-d, or to develop a relationship with Him. But we can force all to participate in the running of the community.” I don’t like the word force, even though he is only referring to taxation here (which you can force people to participate in) but it is true that people can participate in the community regardless of their belief, disbelief, or doubts about God.
In the last line of the parashah, god tells the Israelites “build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” This line made me think that our concept and image of the mishkan is flawed. I’m suggesting that the mishkan is not a place to be built with stone and wood and cloth, but a place to be made within ourselves, or a state of mind.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel—the Kotzker Rebbe— comments that “God dwells wherever we let god in”. This view helps illustrate my point in talking about the mishkan not being a physical place. If God is wherever we let god in then a logical conclusion is that if we let god in we can connect with god wherever we are.
Malbim, a nineteenth–century European Torah commentator and Rabbi, suggests that "each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing oneself to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God's glory."
There is a gospel song that also illustrates this point also:
Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true and with thanksgiving, I'll be a living, sanctuary, oh for you.
Interestingly, there is a synagogue in New York that has taken the traditional gospel tune of these lines and sung our Torah line in Hebrew to it:
בתיכם ושכנתי מקדש לי ועשו
Therefore, what we need is instructions for how to connect to god and to each other, instead of how many cubits a wall should be.
The idea of each person being able to make themselves holy and connect to God without a physical place gives more power to the people, and takes away the idea of the high priests being chums with God while everyone else watched from the bleachers.
In every religion there is a place or thing that represents the deity. Christians have cathedrals, Catholics have the cross as a symbol, in Hindu there are thousands of gods and each has a statue. In Judaism we had the mishkan because as humans it’s easier for us to believe in something bigger than ourselves (be that god, or the power of community) if we can say “that is where my god lives, that’s my mishkan.”
But today, if we create a place in ourselves made up of positive thoughts and feelings, then we can cultivate the sense of something greater that we can believe in.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, a British Reform Rabbi, writes: “There is a connection between our sacred space and our community – a connection so deep and intense that we can create one by creating the other.”
A sacred community is built when every person carries an inner mishkan and that becomes the glue that binds us together.