T'rumah - Making Space for God
“I begin with a prayer of gratitude for all that is holy in my life. God needs no words, no English or Hebrew, no semantics and no services. But I need them. Through prayer, I can sense my inner strength, my inner purpose, my inner joy, my capacity to love.” This reading, found in the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah, was written by Ruth Brin. It calls to mind an idea that is as beautiful as it is troubling. Why do we pray? Are we praying in order that God be involved in our lives? Or do we pray in order that we might feel changed by our attempt to communicate with God in a meaningful way?
Our Torah portion this week seems to reflect on a similar question. In Parashat T’rumah, we get a long and detailed description of the way that the Israelites were to go about constructing the Tabernacle, a mobile structure in which God could have a physical space amidst the people. At face value, this seems somewhat odd. To this point, God had communicated almost exclusively through Moses, an intermediary. Direct contact with the people wasn’t something that was part of the structure of the religion at the time. But God had already seen the story playing out. After just a few chapters in Exodus of being free, the Israelites had already complained on multiple occasions, asking Moses (and thus, God) to help them overcome the challenges in the wilderness. If God was going to have any hope of maintaining the sacred relationship with the people, they would need a space where they could reflect on God’s proximity to them, and where they could both literally and ideologically store their divine partnership.
Which is why, amidst all of the fine details and descriptions of table construction, pole measurements, and tapestry stitch patterns, we read the following: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8) In a Torah portion almost entirely consumed by minutiae, this line jumps out as a clear indication of more profound meaning. What does it mean that God wants the people to create a space where God can reside? Does this admit to a physical manifestation of God, or does it demonstrate a deeper understanding of the human need for symbolic application of the abstract?
The text seems, in this moment, to be highly aware of the stress that theological faith puts on a believer. Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, is named for the words Yisra and El, translated directly as “one who struggles with God.” Jewish tradition makes no secret that a belief in God’s role in our lives requires that we grapple with it, that we attempt to make sense of a relationship with holiness in a world that so often makes it impossible to imagine. Which is why the Torah encourages us to think about what it means to make a physical manifestation of that which is inherently ethereal. In a religion that forbids idolatry, there needs to be some kind of concrete reminder that we can express some notions of God without challenging our ability to remain steadfast in our faith. And thus, the notion of a Sanctuary, or Mikdash, is born.
The word used in Exodus 25:8, Mikdash, is translated as Sanctuary. This is a fair translation, because, like the English word, sanctity is at its root. The Hebrew word Kodesh is used in many places, including in the Havdallah ceremony, the time during our week when we separate between Shabbat and the rest of the week. We use the words “Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol,” saying that we separate that holy from the everyday, in order to make both things more meaningful, more intentional, more valuable. In Jewish tradition, we are all about creating distinction between things. These things are holy, and these things are profane. These things are kosher, and these things are forbidden. These things are commandments TO do things, and these are those commandments NOT TO do things. In much the same way, we create sacred spaces not in order to drive out holiness from everywhere else in the world, but in order to prevent us from losing any sense of holiness because of the mundanity of the outside.
So where does this leave us? We have a tribe of wandering former slaves, who are being led by a God they cannot see, who only interacts with their one leader. In the hopes of concretizing this relationship, God decides that the people should construct a physical space in which they can relate to the Divine, and a place that will create some separation between the holiness of God and the regular operations of running a society in the outside world. This is all being done in the wilderness, intentionally constructed before the people arrive in the Promised Land, in order that they can work out the logistics and manage the details before they get too overloaded with the stresses of constructing a new nation. The logic of the sequence makes good sense, and helps us to better understand how God wants the relationship to manifest moving forward.
It is at this point that it is important to acknowledge what I mean when I say “God wants.” Torah, after all, was not, as many believe, written by God, but rather, as I believe, inspired by God to human authors. Does this make Torah perfect? No, it does not. But it does make Torah highly meaningful in a world in which we are all scrambling to try to feel something larger than ourselves. It takes only a cursory look at the text to experience the staying power that it contains. For a book written over 2,000 years ago to remain relevant today, teaching lessons for our modern world, it must contain whispers of holiness, and must have been inspired by something sacred and enduring. But it is difficult to attribute too much stake to what “God wants” in the context of the Biblical character of God. After all, tracing any one notion of God’s character throughout the 187 chapters of the Torah (let alone the rest of the Bible) is next to impossible. Author Jack Miles wrote a book called God: A Biography, in which he attempts to describe the character development of God throughout the Bible, and, in so doing, shines a light on exactly how diverse the representations are of God’s character development. All of this is to say that when I talk about God being thoughtful of the needs of human beings to conceptualize Divine relationship in practical terms, I am doing so from the perspective of God as a character within the biblical narrative, as well as the ways in which a divine inspiration aided the writers to arrive at this conclusion. We can tell a lot about the ways that we understand God by the way we encounter holiness in our lives, and this section of the Torah perfectly encapsulates this idea.
And now we return to our original premise. As Ruth Brin articulated in her poem, God does not need us to create a decorated tent so that God can live in a beautiful house. The omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent God we hear about has no use for such basic accommodations. Rather, it is our need that we are serving, our need to be able to feel physical manifestations of our otherwise conceptual beliefs. God needs a place where God can reside, in order that we are reminded that God is near to us at all times, that God is there for us, if only we are willing to go to a place where WE are open enough to experience God.
The last words of our most famous line jump out in their linguistic structure. “That I may dwell among them.” The word B’tocham, is perhaps best translated as “within them.” It isn’t, then, that God wants us to create a Sanctuary in order that God may live in our neighborhood, as one of us. Rather, God knows that if we create a sacred space in our community, God will be able to live WITHIN US, that God will be able to have a place in our minds and in our hearts. God is not seeking to develop a home, for God doesn’t need a home. God can exist regardless of our ability to perceive or experience holiness. Rather, God wants to dwell within us, in order that God may offer us the gift of meaning, the opportunity to feel close to the divine, and to make sense of the world around us.
When we create sacred space, whether it be in our synagogues or in our everyday lives, we make separation. Separation between the mundane and the holy. This isn’t done in order to render everything outside useless. Quite the opposite. By creating sacred space and “regular” space, we add meaning to both. We are able to feel nourished and uplifted by our holy places, and then we are able to take that meaning and that intention and apply it to our lives beyond. We are able to have God dwell inside of us in all spaces, because we are willing to thoughtfully and specifically make a space where God can exist in the first place. Without a way to think about God in structured ways, we will never make the time or occasion to do so. Therefore, God asks us to make a Sanctuary, a physical one and also a spiritual one, in order that God be able to be with us as we make our way through our own unique wildernesses of life.