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Holy Space

Trumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19 )

by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

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Human beings have a unique and fundamental attachment to place and space. Animals have lairs and mark their territory, but people add layers of significance to the spaces they occupy. Our homes are particularly significant to us. They provide us with security, privacy, belonging, identity. They are the centre of our existence - a central place from which to look out at the world. And they give our lives meaning, well-being, and happiness.

Home is the place we feel safest. Where we build a lifetime of memories. Where we raise our children, and entertain family and friends simply to celebrate being together. Above all, our homes are sanctuaries - a physical safe-harbour, but also a place of emotional and even spiritual refuge.

Ultimately, a home isn't just where you are, it's who you are.

In this week's parsha, we read of another sacred space, a literal sanctuary - a spiritual home for the Jewish people and a "resting place" for the Shechina, God's Divine presence.

Parsha Terumah deals with God's instruction to build the Mishkan - most often translated as the "Tabernacle" or the "Sanctuary" in the desert. It was the place where the Jewish people gathered together to connect to God in an intimate way. Though built to extraordinarily intricate and detailed specifications, the Mishkan was a temporary structure that was disassembled and then reconstructed as the Jewish people journeyed from place to place.

Later on, when the Jewish people took possession of the land, it took a more permanent form - becoming a forerunner to, and receiving its ultimate expression in, the Beit HaMikdash - the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem itself is a holy space, and within it the Temple Mount, on which the Temple stood, is a place where the spiritual pulse is at its most intense - to the extent that the Beit HaMikdash embodies the very notion of the holiness of space: "Kedushat HaMakom".

Jewish history and destiny is inextricably entwined with the Temple. It was the focal point of our identity when it stood, and 2 000 years later, we continue to mourn its destruction and pray fervently for its rebuilding. Yet, in a certain sense, the Mishkan/Beit HaMakidash remains in existence today - as the prototype and model for two other key institutions in Jewish life, the shul and the beit hamidrash - the house of learning. According to the Talmud (Megillah 29a), even after the destruction of the Temple, God's presence continues to dwell in the shuls and Torah study halls we create, which are called a Mikdash Me'at - a miniature sanctuary. These two fundamental institutions, so permeated with holiness even amid the darkness of exile, are a microcosm of the Mishkan and the holy Temple.

We see that this concept of the sanctity of physical space has characterised Jewish life for thousands of years. Let's now journey deeper into the root meaning of the Mishkan.

The Sefer HaChinuch, one of the classic works from the Middle Ages, argues that the purpose of the Mishkan wasn't really to provide a home for God. The author cites the words of King Solomon spoken at the dedication of the Temple he himself built: "Behold the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You, and surely not this Temple that I have built." (Kings 1:8:27) The Sefer HaChinuch therefore instead focuses on the Mishkan's significance to people. He says the Mishkan's painstakingly detailed building specifications were geared towards constructing an intensely holy space within which God's presence - the Shechina - could be felt viscerally, enabling those who entered its confines to be uplifted and spiritually purified, and to draw close to the Creator in an unprecedented way.

Friends, God is everywhere, but there are certain places on earth where we feel His presence with greater intensity. The Mishkan and the Temple were places imbued with God's presence in this intense manner. And, even today, the land of Israel retains this spiritual potency, as do the "miniature temples": the shul and the beit hamidrash.

The effect of these physical spaces is deeply felt. In general, human beings are strongly influenced by the places they occupy. A home, with its architecture and furniture, but more importantly, its atmosphere and values, has a profound impact on those who occupy it. So too, the physical space of a shul or a house of Torah learning directly influences those who enter it. These holy spaces, dedicated purely to the service of God, are so important to us. They inspire us to be better - to be holy ourselves, and to strive for spiritual greatness and Godliness. And, through them, we connect not just with God, but with each other, because these are not just spiritual places, they are communal spaces. The enterprise of building the Temple was a communal one, as is, today, the enterprise of building a shul or a beit hamidrash. These are places in which, and through which, we feel closer to God and closer to the people who gather there with us.

According to the Ramban, the Mishkan had a very specific function: to keep the flame of the Sinai experience alive. When the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah, they had an unprecedented and intense prophetic experience; they heard the "voice" of God Himself. Says the Ramban, the Mishkan brought the intensity of the Sinai experience into the day-to-day lives of the Jewish people. Just as the Shechina rested on Mount Sinai, it rested in the Mishkan. And just as the Jewish people experienced Divine revelation at Sinai, they experienced it in the Mishkan.

And, of course, we can extend this concept to the modern-day shul and beit hamidrash. These too are places where the presence of God is concentrated, where we can access the Shechina and be sanctified and inspired by their holy atmosphere, where we can reconnect with the original Sinai experience that has always defined the Jewish people, and from which we draw our identity and our spiritual vision as Jews. Hearing the voice of God at the mountain gave us a mission for all times and all places - to live in accordance with His will and bring light and sanctity into the world through His Torah. The Mishkan, and later, the Holy temple, and today, the shul and the beit hamidrash, are the places we enter to re-ignite that sense of vision and mission.

Crucially, however, the Temple or Mishkan, or shul or beit hamidrash, should be places that inspire us to lead a sanctified life and serve God outside their walls. In his commentary on the Book of Isaiah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that God destroyed the Temple because people were using it as a vehicle to justify what they were doing outside of it. Their outlook was that you could do whatever you wanted outside the walls of the Temple - be unethical in business, do harm to people, neglect your responsibilities to God, to other human beings and to society - and then come to the Temple to offer your sacrifices of atonement. Essentially, they had inverted the entire purpose of the Temple. They'd forgotten that the real arena for the service of God takes place "on the outside", and that the role of the Temple was to inspire us to live up to that task.

Rav Hirsch explains that in today's times, when there is no Temple, the shul performs precisely this role. It's not simply a place where we express our Jewishness; it's a place to be inspired so we can become great Jews and live a full Jewish life outside of shul. We come to shul to reconnect with the values of Sinai - and then we go out and implement those values in our daily lives. In so doing, we infuse our homes, our workplaces, wherever we happen to be at any given point, with the holiness of space. The same principle applies to the beit hamidrash. We gather in shul and in the beit hamidrash, as a minyan, as a community, praying together, learning together, enveloping ourselves in the Shechina, immersing ourselves in the holiness of space. And we emerge as people more inspired and closer to God, closer to our fellow human being, more connected to the mitzvot and mission God gave us at Sinai. We emerge as people ready to infuse every aspect of life with Godliness and sanctity.

There is a deeper dimension. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik says rather than building a home for God, the Mishkan is really about creating a home for man. According to Rav Soloveitchik: "God is not homeless, man is homeless. God feigned homelessness in order to induce man to build a home."

He says that as human beings, we all feel a sense of homelessness born from our vulnerability and a certain helplessness. He puts it this way: "Man is vulnerable, exposed to disease and death. The beast is similarly vulnerable, but he is not homeless because he is unaware of his existential situation."

Furthermore, says Rav Soloveitchik, the human being is besieged by a "restlessness and boredom... searching without finding, yearning without achieving", thereby compounding this sense of rootlessness and alienation.

So, what do we do? What is the solution to our dislocation? Where do we go to find a refuge from our homelessness? Rav Soloveitchik's answer: the Mishkan/Beit HaMikdash, and in today's world - the shul. When we enter these places, we come home. Within these sanctified walls, through the process of prayer, we reconnect with our Creator. In doing so, we soothe those feelings of homelessness, because through kindling our connection to God, we feel that we have roots in this world and that we aren't just adrift in an existential void. Through calling out in communal prayer in shul, through immersing ourselves in Torah learning in a beit hamidrash, we connect to the One who is Eternal and reconnect with our own eternal selves. In a world of existential loneliness, we find a sense of stability, comfort and rootedness.

Rav Soloveitchik says one of the reasons people become disenchanted with shul in today's times is that they don't see it as a place of connection. He remarks how, in pre-war Europe, Jews would walk into shul and there would be that sense of coming home, of putting all of one's troubles aside and feeling held in God's warm embrace.

"Why do we need a synagogue at all?" he asks. "Why not pray in the field? The Jew does not need a house in which to pray... We need a structure not for its architectural value, but for its psychological effect. We do not need a house, we need a home. The synagogue should be called not the House of God, but the Home of God, or more accurately, the Home of Man... The synagogue as an idea represents man's home on earth. 'And they shall build for me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst.' (Exodus 25:8) The synagogue is God's home because it is man's home."

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