The Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk was by all accounts a firebrand. He served a community in Poland until 1839 when he retreated from public life and lived in seclusion for the last 20 years of his life. He never published. All that survives of his work is a small collection of sayings. In fact towards the end of his life he burned all of his writings. Everything that he ever wrote was destroyed save what his disciples remembered. He was singularly consumed with devotion to God. He railed against false piety.
This week we read of the details for the construction of the tabernacle, the portable mishkan, around which the ancient Israelites focused their devotion. The Torah declares: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9)
Can any building truly house God?
Can any building other than the original mishkan be perfect? And so we continue struggling, attempting to figure out how best to bring God to earth, how to make God’s presence felt in the here and now. All of Jewish history is in part a record of the attempts to decipher how to build that mishkan again and again, how to recreate that moment of God’s nearness found in the Torah. How do we build a Jewish life out of the fragments of belief that are left to us by our ancestors?
Our efforts are imperfect. Our sanctuaries inadequate.
Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk asks about this week’s verses: why does the Torah say that God will dwell among them and not that God will dwell in the sanctuary. He answers his own question: “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”
The trappings and beauty of our sanctuaries pale in comparison to the heart. That is where true piety can be found. We do not require buildings. We do not need sanctuaries. And if we are to take Menahem Mendl’s life as an example, we do not even require books.
We only require a true and devoted heart.