Livnot v’L'hibanot: To Build and to be Built
by Phillip Katz
Architects often talk about the practical aspects of buildings and less about the passions that influence and inspire them. Yet, the design process is a constant balance between sacred and functional. Judaism provides a context for human conduct that affects everything in life, including synagogue architecture and sacred space.
Parashat T’rumah is about communicating our vision. It speaksto leadership, who we are and what we are about. Leading entailscommunicating. The way we persuade others to follow us is bypassionately communicating, in a variety of ways, the story, vision andmission of our congregations. Communication is not the same thing astalking. Communication comes from the word “commune”: to connect peoplein a deep, intimate way. That connection only takes place when theperson to whom we are talking actually hears and internalizes themessage we are expressing.
Since human beings are not digital recorders, it often takes severalattempts for our message to be received and understood. It may takemany attempts–some spoken, some visual, some physical–for the membersof our communities to believe, remember and repeat that message intheir own words.
In the Torah portion T’rumah, the construction and structureof the sanctuary, on which the entire Torah reading is centered, servesas a potent communication device for the story of the Jews’ liberationand newfound freedom. No longer do they have to live in the darkshadows of the colossal statues of the Pharaohs and the mammoth templesdedicated to the Egyptian deities of Isis and Ra; no longer will theirresources and efforts be forcibly confiscated by Egyptian overseers;and no longer will Egyptian culture and religion define theiridentity.
From this point forward, Moses makes sure the Jews have their ownpalace and Temple, which, rather than casting a giant, menacing shadow,radiates a golden glow in the midst of the camp. Moses also ensuresthat people’s resources and efforts are not cruelly beaten out of thembut rather freely donated and gladly volunteered. Furthermore, theresulting structure, through its architecture and furnishings, does notreflect Egypt’s story, culture and values, but instead conveys ourunique Jewish spiritual story, and embodies our own distinctive cultureand values.
As an architect of sacred spaces and buildings that create community, Ihave to communicate through the physical world and the builtenvironment. I realize that our buildings must support, identify andreinforce community. I have a special appreciation for what Mosesdid–it’s no easy feat to build community.
We, as Jewish leaders, learn from Moses’s example to communicate ourvision to our constituents in a multiplicity of ways. We learn to useall available means–songs, symbols, slogans and structures–to tell thestory of our group. In this way, the audio, visual and kinestheticlearners among us can all access and take pride in the message, visionand mission that makes the Jewish people and our community buildingunique.
There is a Hebrew phrase which sums up T’rumah and our lives in just a few words:Livnot v’L'hibanot,which translates to “to build and to be built.” It refers to thephysical contribution the participants make to the building itself, andto the knowledge, experiences and personal growth gained during theprocess. May we all be builders in our lifetime.
Phillip Katz is a principle in the Milwaukee-based architecture firm, PKPD (Phillip Katz Project Development). Meet Phillip at the URJ Biennial for his learning session, “Sacred Architecture: Bringing Heaven Down to Earth” (Block B).