Written in Hebrew above our congregation’s ark are the words from this week’s portion: “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) While I was obviously not present when the sanctuary was built I imagine this verse was selected because it is located within the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle, the mishkan.
Soon after leaving Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai, God instructs the Israelites to build this mishkan. This tabernacle was intended to accompany the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. It was not found in a fixed location but instead was carried with the people. While the mishkan was extravagantly detailed (it had a lot of gold!) its single most important quality was that it was portable.
Throughout the Torah no place was more holy than another. We no longer even know, for example, where Mount Sinai is located. Revelation was about the gift of Torah not the mountain on which it was given. Holiness was connected with wherever the tabernacle rested. And the greatest of all sanctity was attached to our dream. We dreamed of touching the land of Israel. It is interesting and important to recognize that for the ancient Israelites the holiness of place was attached to a dream not in fact to a location they experienced.
Our identity is fashioned in no particular place but is instead founded on a dream.
It was only after the entering into the land and then some 300 years later in the age of the kings that the centrality of Jerusalem gains prominence. It was during the reign of King Solomon, David’s son, that the first Temple was built. Its dedication is described in this week’s Haftarah. There we discover echoes of the verse inscribed above our Ark: “Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon: ‘With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments… I will dwell among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’” (I Kings 6)
Whereas in the Torah God’s presence was dependent on movement (we had to schlep the mishkan from place to place), in Solomon’s day it becomes dependent on our actions and behaviors. Once the place becomes fixed it is our movement between right and wrong that controls God’s presence. And then the Temple is destroyed, and soon rebuilt, and again destroyed. We are exiled from the land of our dreams. We are banished from the city of Jerusalem.
We return to the wandering. Building on Solomon’s understanding, the rabbis teach that God’s presence can be anywhere and everywhere. We take up—again—the Torah’s wandering narrative. No place is more holy than another. What matters is not where we meet, but when. What matters is that we hold the book in our hand. What matters is that we continue to learn from this Torah. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that we sanctify time, not place. We elevate the Sabbath day over all other days of the week.
In our own day people too often associate synagogues, and the values they are intended to teach and the people who see it as their spiritual centers, with the buildings that house their activities. But Jewish devotion is not about the sanctuaries in which we gather. Jewish commitment moves with us. Jewish devotion must accompany us. It is dependent on the choices we make between right and wrong. It is attached to following God’s demands.
Too often we also confuse our presence with God’s presence. Our synagogues are about discovering God’s presence in our midst. It is not about us. It is about God.
When looking at the verse inscribed above our Ark we might come to believe that God is only here in this sanctuary, and not as well in our homes, our businesses, and in nature. Why can’t you sense God’s presence on the ocean’s shore? Why can’t God become more visible when you reach out to someone who is sick, or another who is hungry and homeless, or another who is in desperate need of comfort and consolation? Those are just as much Jewish commitments, as the prayers we recite in our sanctuaries.
If God’s presence only stays in the sanctuary, if the Torah remains some scroll we only study in our synagogues, then the notion that God can be anywhere and everywhere is lost, then the command that God should be everywhere and anywhere is lost.
God’s presence must be taken with us wherever we travel. It is not located, and fixed, in one place. It is instead something carried. It is something we must carry.
And it is something that carries us—on our journeys and wanderings.