Parshat P’kudei: Building holiness

Parshat P’kudei: Building holiness

Temple Beth Or, Washington Township, Reform

Is the synagogue building — classrooms and offices, a social hall and soaring sanctuary — obsolete? With anxiety over synagogue affiliation among the next generation of Jews, the question is raised more and more frequently. Some argue that the Jewish community is over-invested in real estate and expensive physical plants, that the resources we devote to our buildings could be more effectively directed to Jewish educational and engagement efforts. Throughout the country, “synagogues without walls,” online initiatives, and innovative decentralized communal organizations have begun to test the theory, fostering Jewish life without the focus on a specific location.

This week’s Torah portion, P’kudei, presents a very different vision. The concluding Torah portion in the book of Exodus is one of four portions devoted to the building of the Mishkan — the portable Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant and served as the center for the Israelites’ worship during their wandering in the wilderness. The portions are exquisitely detailed: They describe the materials, construction, and layout of the Tabernacle itself, all of its furnishings, and the special garments and accessories worn by the priests.

Readers of P’kudei have often wondered about this detail: Since the style of the Torah is to leave so much unsaid, what is the reason here to describe every plank, pole, socket, loop of fabric, and copper grating? Countless spiritual and symbolic interpretations have been offered, but they share a common insight — when the Torah devotes four portions (approximately 12 chapters) to a subject, recording and repeating the smallest details, that subject is very important. The Torah shouts at us to pay attention not only to the fact that the Presence of God dwelled among the Israelites, but to the specific physical structure where that took place. The building itself was necessary and significant.

This reverent attention to buildings — to the actual spaces where Jewish rituals are practiced — echoes throughout Jewish history. The greatest example, of course, was the Temple in Jerusalem, whose completion is described in the Haftarah portion this week, from the story of King Solomon in the book of I Kings (7:51-8:21). The central importance of that physical structure is apparent to us, almost 2000 years after its destruction, in the ongoing controversies surrounding Jewish practice and authority at the Western Wall.

When the Temple gave way to the synagogue, Jewish thought continued to display concern for the honor of the physical spaces where Jews gathered to pray. The Talmud teaches, “Any city whose roofs are higher than the synagogue will ultimately be destroyed” (Shabbat 11a). We are used to the pastoral image of a small town with a church steeple visible as the highest structure. Our tradition holds the same aspiration for synagogues! It encourages us to make our synagogues a focal point in the literal construction of our communities.

We do love our synagogue buildings. Architecture and artwork uplift and inspire us. Our sanctuary seats are familiar to us from many Shabbat and Holy Day services. Names of loved ones and friends, living and deceased, are inscribed on plaques and bricks. Our social halls are comfortable reminders of past celebrations. There is something powerful and enduring about this connection to a synagogue building.

Of course, a glorious synagogue is no guarantee of a vibrant Jewish community. This reminds me of a poem by Yehoash (1872-1927), a Yiddish poet and translator, Lithuanian immigrant, and observer of American Jewish life. It is called, “In the Temple:”

In the high temple
A bee buzzes.
In the high quiet temple
A bee sings.
No saints with haloes around their heads,
No marble pillars with blue-and-red veins,
No silent plush.
And vanished through a windowpane
Out of the high temple,
Out of the high quiet temple…

Translated by Benjamin
and Barbara Harshav

We never want our temples to be quiet! As grand and awe-inspiring as a synagogue may be, we know that its purpose is to be filled with children and learning and friendship. The beauty and sophistication of our communal buildings is not an end in itself. We should be wary of the lonely bee buzzing in an empty sanctuary.

The Mishkan in Parashat P’kudei is not an empty sanctuary. At the end of the Torah portion, we read: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:33-34). For our own synagogue buildings to be like the Mishkan, we must similarly work to fill them with God’s presence. This is achieved through prayer, study, acts of kindness, family harmony, and hospitality.

We also read, “When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys” (40:36). The Tabernacle was not stationary; it helped to lead the Israelites in the direction of the Promised Land. Our synagogue buildings are at their best when they lead us somewhere; what we do in synagogues resonates out into our homes and the rest of our lives. We progress toward our personal and communal goals.

We may understand those who feel confined or constrained by the great attention paid to our Jewish communal buildings. But as with the Mishkan in the wilderness, our buildings — in all of their physicality and detail — help us to experience God’s presence. In the future as in the past, they are a central and essential feature of our thriving Jewish community.

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