The narrative of the Torah comes to a grinding halt with Parashat Terumah, but that does not mean that some of the deepest meaning of our relationship with God cannot be found in the details of Terumah and the parshiyot ahead. From the dramatic stories of the antediluvians and our patriarchal ancestors in Genesis, to the powerful story of redemption from slavery in Egypt and revelation of God’s presence at Sinai, we now move to the details of building the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle is the shrine to house the Ark and the Tablets of the Covenant, and the details for its construction provide the content for the remainder of the book of Exodus, except for the story of the Golden Calf. From here through the end of the book of Leviticus we will hear of the role of the priests within the space of the Tabernacle, teachings that do not provide good material for bedtime stories or epic movies. Nevertheless, these teachings concern one of the core questions humans have asked as far back as we can remember: how can we, who understand there is a mystery of Life, develop a relationship with It?
In the early stories of Exodus we learn that our ancestors had a profound transformative experience in their flight to freedom from Egypt and their hearing first teachings from God at Sinai. How could they recapture those experiences? To write or speak of them, was not enough. Rituals needed to be developed to be able to transmit the experience of the spiritually powerful to the generations who had not been there at that moment. As we read in last week’s parashah, one way to transmit that experience was through the system of mitzvot — specific deeds or commands that formed a just and compassionate society. In the two previous parshiyot, the concept of sacred time has also been taught through the keeping of Shabbat and the commemoration of Pesach. This week we turn our attention, as we do in the weeks ahead, to the establishment of sacred space.
The notion that time or space can be sacred, however, seems incongruous to our understanding and teaching of God. After all, our ancestors were the first to teach that there is one universal, infinite God beyond time and space. Can we not encounter God any time and anywhere? Walking in the mountains and breathing the fresh air; seeing the sky-scape in the outback; enjoying a sunrise at the beach — are not each of these the most incredible spiritual moments and places? For what do we need to build a Tabernacle? Or for that matter a Bet ha-Mikdash (a sacred house, normally translated as The Temple and the subject of this week’s haftarah). What about a synagogue? Yet, just as our ancestors spent so much time on the detail of their holy places and spaces, so too should we. The creation of holy space is essential in our ability to encounter the intimate indwelling presence of the life source, to transcend to the beyond.
The Torah teaches this week that God says, “let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) and the corresponding haftarah concludes:
With regard to this House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake my people Israel
(I Kings 6:12–13).
These places are the places where we can come to encounter God’s presence. Our ancestors were not simplistic — far from it. They understood that the Source of All Existence will be forever present beyond time and space and within all time and space. While that may be true of the Infinite, the finite – the very limited humans briefly passing through this place – need to construct places and times and ways to meet the Infinite. That is the essential nature of the relationship.
The Torah has dealt with – and will continue to deal with – questions of justice, compassion, and sacred time. It now opens the notion that sacred space is also essential to encounter the divine. Certainly, the Life Source can be encountered on a mountaintop, in the outback or on the beach. Nevertheless, the designation by humans of space as specifically holy – whether Tabernacle or Temple or synagogue – adds another element: the human consciousness. We create those spaces specifically for sacred encounter, shared with community and generations to come; we establish a living tradition of spiritual encounter that can be transmitted.
Each one of us has the potential to have a personal spiritual experience at any place and at any time. If we hope that those spiritual experiences will have religious impact, then we need to construct means to structure and transmit them. The Tabernacle is the first model for what will become in today’s terms the synagogue – the place where we seek to transform ourselves and the world in our profound encounter with God.