I go to a shul that meets in a gym. Not an especially nice gym either—it could use a paint job and some adornments, and also some carpeting to help us muffle the noise in a space that we often call “acoustically challenged.”
I have been thinking about our makeshift sanctuary a lot in light of this week’s parsha. I recognize that it seems strange to read chapter after chapter about the ornate decoration of the Mishkan and think about my shul’s gym. There is no acacia wood, no dolphin skins, no rich tapestries of blue and purple. But still, the Mishkan keeps bringing my mind back to my community.
This connection might seem odd. In fact, the surroundings are not especially relevant to the larger experience of our community, which is special regardless of physical ambiance. But it is because of this contrast that I think of our gym when I read about the building of the Mishkan. At the core of this week’s parsha is an overriding value of sacred space, which exists beyond the surface.
This week we will read Parshat T’rumah, beginning the narrative of the building of the Mikdash, which will occupy the majority of the 26 remaining chapters in the book of Shemot. At the outset of the parsha, God tells Moshe, “V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham”—“And they shall make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” Over the course of the next five parsheot, God will painstakingly outline the specifications for building of that space, and then those specifications will be echoed a second time as B’nai Yisrael follow God’s commands.
While beautiful, the Mishkan parsheot can feel like a bit of a letdown after the excitement of Yetziat Mitzrayim and the experience of Ma’amad Har Sinai. Of course, we no longer have this singular holy space anymore. The Mishkan is gone, as is the Beit HaMikdash. What, then, are we supposed to make of these parsheot? Should they simply be relegated as type of sacred art history, to be considered and then forgotten as we pass through the calendar into the laws and statutes that still apply to us today?
The second verse of Shemot 25 strikes against this type of disregard. God tells Moshe, “Kol ish asher yidveinu libo, tikuchu et trumati”—“From every person whose heart moves him, take My gifts.” And in fact, as we will read in a few weeks, the people give until Moshe has to tell them to stop. It is from this outpouring of giving that the eternal lessons of the Mishkan remain deeply relevant. Even as we are not giving to build God a sanctuary anymore, we must allow ourselves to be moved into giving in the service of God, to create a sacred space that allows God to enter the world.
In recent days and weeks and months, there have been a number of conversations about the correct way to do the important work of Avodat Hashem. Many of these debates have focused on external signs of religious expression, striving to either affirm or deny these practices as valid ways of being Jewish. Rather than building a world in which our individual creativity is valued as a one of many voices intended to bring God into the world, we have devolved into assertions that our way is the only correct way to serve God.
I would like to suggest, then, that it would be easier to build a (metaphorical) Mikdash if we spend less time talking about how others are serving God, and more time finding the gifts that each one of us can share with the world in the name of true and honest Avodat Hashem. “Kol ish asher yidveinu libo”—each one of us has the capacity to be moved to give of ourselves, in a way that cannot be mimicked by any other person. However, we must work to access that piece of ourselves. It is only when we move beyond the surface—when we stop thinking about whether our shul could use a paint job, or how our appearances or actions might seem to others, or whether we approve of other people’s religious expression—that we will build a world filled with holiness. It is only then that we can create a space that will allow God to dwell among us.