Building God — and us — a sanctuary in Parshat T’rumah

Building God — and us — a sanctuary in Parshat T’rumah

God doesn’t need a house from us. But we like a house for God anyway.

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

We are officially entering the final third of Exodus, the bit that never makes the movies. It has nothing to do with Egypt, Pharaoh, or any exciting things that come in groups of 10. Now we are at the Ikea Manual of the Torah, Parshat T’rumah. In fact, aside from the story of the Golden Calf in a few weeks, from T’rumah through the end of Exodus, it is cubits, collections, and building instructions. It is the creation of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary and house of God; it will house the Ark of the Covenant, the seven-branched menorah, and various altars. But most importantly, it will house God, so that the Israelites can find God’s presence.

But wait a minute — does God really need a “house” in order to connect with people? No! Isn’t the idea of God needing a house a bit materialistic, not to mention anthropomorphic, for the God of Judaism? Yes!

Isaiah 66:1 reads, “Thus said God, ‘The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where could you build a house for Me?’” The answer is nowhere, obviously. And even if we thought that human beings could even think of building a dwelling for God, it says in Jeremiah 23:24, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” In other words, God is too transcendent for a physical dwelling, and anyway, God’s presence is everywhere. And Judaism also teaches that God is always with us, personally. As described in Psalm 139:2-5, “You are familiar with my ways, there is no word in my speech unknown to You, You surround me on all sides and lay Your hand upon me.”

And yet, in this week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, Exodus 25:8, God spoke to Moses saying, “And let them [the Israelites] make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

From nearly 15 chapters of building instructions, we get just this one sentence of explanation. Hardly enough to go against the previously mentioned (and many other) biblical passages that directly contradict the idea that only through a physical building can God be amongst people. And that’s not to mention the pharisaic and rabbinical texts that contradict it. “God needs a physical place to dwell in or else we can’t find God,” simply does not match the breadth of what Judaism teaches in how we connect with God or how God connects with us (see most works on Jewish philosophy and theology since 70 C.E.).

We have a God who can be found at the side of the road, traveling on the way, in the joy of a song, and in moments of relation. We teach that God is everywhere, that God can be found in all aspects of creation, that we can release God’s perfection by perfecting the world through tikkun olam. We teach that God can be understood, that God can be experienced, and that God is in each of us.

But we also teach that the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, means God dwells in a sanctuary at all times.

Jewish history shows that despite our progressively portable theology, we like to have a dwelling place for God. Certainly not one dwelling place, mind you. From the Mishkan, to the first and second Temples, to the synagogue, to the break-off synagogue, to the merged synagogue…we people of Israel have highly diverging opinions of what and where God’s dwellings should be. But based on all these Jewish houses of worship around the world and throughout history, we do seem to agree on wanting to have them.

And they aren’t for God. To go back to Isaiah 66:1-2, “What physical location could serve as My abode? All this was made by My hand, and thus it all came into being.”

We don’t create worship spaces because God needs a house from us. We do so because we need a house for God. Because having God dwell where we dwell is comforting. We may not be able to find God on demand  in an I – Thou relationship or in a kabalistic experience. But we certainly can find some of what we are looking for in a synagogue on Shabbat. We have spaces built for that very purpose. And we still haven’t changed much from those Israelites in T’rumah who had just left Egypt and were thrust into the Sinai desert. We, like them, are afraid of chaos, of loneliness, of instability. We search for meaning, companionship, and security.

Though we know the goal, the path may be dark and it can be difficult to take the first step. But if God is with us, literally dwelling in our community, then not only are we supported by ourselves and our fellows, but by God’s presence as well.

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