The People and the Dwelling: Creating a Sacred Space for God (D’var Torah Sh’mot)

by Rabbi Marc Berkson

There we were, in the wilderness, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the presence of the Eternal. Yet God knew–far better than we–that we could not stand forever at the foot of that mountain; that our journey had to continue; that we could not always encounter God as we did at Sinai as Moses ascended to the Torah. And since the journey to the Promised Land had to continue in our wilderness, God knew we needed a place where we could meet, where we could be back in God’s presence. But God also knew that God could not be with us as long as we did nothing to bring God into the world. Thus the commandment in T’rumah for building the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness, and the crucial verses from Sh’mot:

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

Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna offered a perceptive understanding of these verses in his commentary to Sh’mot published by JPS. He noted in verse eight the use of the verb v’shachanti, with its Hebrew root of shin-chaf-nun and its meaning, “to dwell.” Rather than using a more common Hebrew verb with the root yod-shin-vav and its connotation of permanent dwelling, shin-chaf-nun reflects a sense that God’s presence is temporary, that God’s abode is in the heavens but that God can meet with us in the sanctuary. And, of course, the Hebrew word we translate as that sacred space in the following verse is miskhan, from the same root. Furthermore, the last word of verse eight extends this understanding. Where does God dwell? Not bo, “in it (the sanctuary),” but b’toham, “among them,” or, better, “in their midst.” In other words, God cannot be with us if we do not provide a dwelling place.

As for the design of that mishkan, that sanctuary, that sacred space where we would encounter God’s presence? The detailed instructions begin in Exodus 25 with T’rumah and continue all the way through Ki Tisa and Exodus 31. But the intent of the instructions seems to be contained in verse nine, for the pattern of the mishkan and of all of its furnishings appear to follow some kind of already-in-place heavenly pattern. And that pattern, somehow imprinted upon us, serves as our guide even as we build sacred space today. For from that mishkan, that Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting in the wilderness to the Temple in Jerusalem to the synagogue today, the sanctuary has been the place where we meet God.

Rabbi Marc Berkson is the spiritual leader at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He served as co-presenter and shared words of Torah during the 2011 North American Biennial learning session, “Bringing Heaven Down to Earth.”

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