Following the revelation at Mount Sinai we first encounter laws of how to order a just society. These are the details of last week’s portion, Mishpatim. In this week’s reading, Terumah, we learn of how to construct a sanctuary and thereby bring God to earth. We read chapters and verses containing inordinate details of how to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings.
The portion begins: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (terumah); you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him… And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’” (Exodus 25:1-8)
But how can God dwell on earth? How can people believe that any building they construct would house God or even befit God? King Solomon responds in the words offered at the dedication ceremony of the First Temple. “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27)
The Rabbis disagree, arguing that God wants to dwell on earth. It is like, they say, a king who says to his daughter on the day she marries a prince from a distant country. “Sweetheart (ok, I added that) I cannot prevent you from moving away with your new husband, but it saddens me to think of you living so far away from me. Do me this favor. Wherever you live, build an apartment for me so that I can come and visit you.” Similarly God says to Israel, “Wherever you travel, build a sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell among you.” (Exodus Rabbah 33:1)
I think that we often place too much importance in such buildings. We place more faith in buildings than in the people who dwell there. This was the cause of our economy’s recent downfall. Buildings are but means to an end. Their purpose is not found in their structures. Their purpose must always be in the people who gather there.
Sometimes when the flowers are blooming on my front yard (may that day be very soon!) and my house is awash in their colors, I think to myself how fortunate I am to have such a beautiful home. Then I remind myself that the purpose of my home extends beyond its landscaping, decorations and rooms. Its purpose extends even beyond keeping my family warm and safe. The purpose of a home is only realized when it brings a family closer together. The purpose of a home is found in the people who gather there.
Even the sanctuary that we dream of one day building is but a means to an end. All buildings are to help us sanctify our lives and cherish our relationships. I stand with King Solomon. No place can contain God. Every building is for us.
When God commanded the Israelites to build a sanctuary God understood that all its details were for the people. Perhaps the Israelites had to believe that it could contain God in order for their hearts to be moved to give. I imagine that God’s most fervent prayer was that the people’s hearts might be joined together and thereby inspired to build a better community. Every sanctuary is so that we might turn towards each other.
That is why the instructions for building a just society precede the instructions for building a sanctuary. It is always about the people. It is first about the community.