IF YOU BUILD IT
Rabbi David Walk
People who know me well, recognize what an emotionally sappy guy I am. Going to movies with me can be embarrassing if the ending is in anyway sad or inspirational. I cry at the drop of a hat or a tear or a hero. Although I could list dozens of movies which have me bawl, one of the multi-hankies is Field of Dreams. In the last scene when the Kevin Costner character plays catch (In Boston, one plays catch, and doesn't have a catch.) with his long departed dad, I just melt into a puddle. But the idea which motivates the movie, that if you make a supreme effort you can capture a much desired aspiration, is very powerful. In Judaism we have many such historical goals. We anticipate and dream of the final redemption, the advent of Mashiach, the ingathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. This list could be extended to much greater length, because these are the big picture items, but there are many smaller goals as well. Many people look forward to an age when certain long abandoned mitzvoth will be renewed, like sacrifices, the great rabbinic court or the red heifer. However, all of these ambitions have one overarching purpose, just like in the movie, that He/She (God) will come.
This issue begins back in parshat Teruma, with the famous verse: Make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst you (Exodus 25:8). There are two interesting words in the Hebrew version of this short phrase. The word I translated as sanctuary is mikdash, as in beit hamikdash or the Temple. The root is kadosh or holy, and it means a holy thing. It's only by context that we conclude that the holy thing referred to is a building or sanctuary. The other fascinating term is v'shachanti, which means to live or inhabit. It gives us the modern Hebrew word shechuna for neighborhood, and the mystical concept of Shechina or Divine Presence, often considered the feminine side of God. So, we can say that the neighborhood or dwelling of God must be a holy precinct, not necessarily a building.
There's a fascinating article by Dr. Schubert Spero on the Bar Ilan web site called 'Of Time and Space.' In this piece Dr. Spero discusses the idea of the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbat. Last week after a recapitulation of the things to be built for the portable Temple, it states: And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: 'Only keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy (31:13). Then there is a long description of observing Shabbat which includes the verses used by most traditional Jews as the Shabbat morning Kiddush. This week's Torah reading begins with the following declaration: Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: "These are the things that the Lord commanded to make.Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death (35:1-2). The normal and prosaic approach to these verses about Shabbat sprinkled liberally throughout the long section describing the construction of the Mishkan is that the Jews in the desert weren't allowed to build this edifice on Shabbat.
However, the plot thickens when Dr. Spero brings another famous verse from elsewhere in the Torah: You shall observe My Sabbaths and revere My Sanctuary. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:30). Clearly, there's more going on than just the technical point that the Jews couldn't do the construction work on Shabbat. So, Dr. Spero presents his thesis that the Torah is teaching us that the Holy Temple isn't the only vehicle for worship or rendezvous with God. Shabbat bestows upon us the opportunity in time which the Temple provides in space for communion with our Creator. This idea in and of itself is hardly new. Many Chasidic greats talked about Shabbat being an island in time similar to the Temple being a special zone of space for getting together with God. But his article started me thinking that this is really the literal meaning of these verses, as opposed to a way-out Chasidic vort floating outside of any connection to the Biblical text. He then goes on to say all the right things about how Sabbath observant families must do everything in their power to assure that, in the absence of the Temple, we take advantage of Shabbat to enhance our relationsjip with God. Dr. Spero doesn't say it, but one could say that the accoutrement of our Shabbat echo the holy items of the Temple. Our candlesticks mimic the menora, the chalot are the shew bread, the Havdala spice reflect the incense, our special Shabbat clothes represent the priestly raiment, the Shabbat meals are the offerings, and the list can go on and on.
But maybe it doesn't end there. Shabbat is eternal and can't be replaced, but the Holy Temple tends to come and go. Perhaps the indefinite language used when the mitzva of building a Mishkan is initially presented (Eodus 25:8) and when we're told that we must venerate the holy place (Leviticus 19:30), is used because other things or places can become a holy site or sanctuary. We miss having the Temple, but we can imbue our homes and houses of worship with the sanctity of a holy site if we can only make it a location that God would want to dwell within.
These long sections describing the making of the Mishkan and its place in the nascent Jewish community give us the certainty that we can live in proximity to God, if we try hard enough. The Kotzker Rebbe famously said that God is wherever we let God in. These Torah readings support that contention and hopefully give us guidelines for accomplishing that greatest of goals allowing the Deity to come into our midst, and, of course, that would bring a tear to my eye.
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