Our House is a Very Very Very Fine House
Right from the beginning of this week’s Parsha, God announces that the people should build a sanctuary to God so that God can dwell among the people. It is a very radical request from God and the theological and practical results of this request can affect almost every aspect of our lives. It seems so easy, build a temple to God. But, as my bible students will tell you, there is nothing easy or simple in the Torah. There are many different translations, commentaries and ways of understanding a text. We can easily miss something important if we read past a simple verse too quickly.
In our Parsha, the Torah goes on to list all the physical items needed to build a portable sanctuary. There are boards and screens, wall hangings and tent covers. Indoor and outdoor furniture. It would lead us to think that from the beginning, this Parsha is about building a building for God. If we look at the first verse of Parshat Terumah, however, we see that the reason for the building is not for God at all. It is so that God can be among the people. It is less about a dwelling place for God and more about a meeting place between God and human beings.
What do you think about sharing public space with God? Just how does one spend quality time with the Creator of the Universe? Ancient people thought that to be in the presence of God, one should use that time to share with God a meal. That is the reason why animals were sacrificed in ancient days, A sacrifice was just the way we could eat a nice meal together with God. But think about that image, God and human beings sharing a meal. Eating with God raises in our minds all kinds of strange questions. What does one say when one is sharing a meal with God? Does God pay attention if we use the wrong fork? Does God forgive us if we have a stray piece of spinach caught in our teeth? Should we share the usual small talk that is customary at our family table or should we think of the meal as if it was a formal state dinner? Should we only speak when our “host” speaks to us and even then, we deal only with “lofty” ideas? After dinner does one share a good cigar with God? A sniffer of brandy?
Can you see where this is going? Perhaps what we need to do is to consider that maybe the Torah is not talking about a real house at all. Maybe Torah wants us to consider what it would take to spend some quality time contemplating God. Our surroundings are not as important as what we feel and how we respond to being in the presence of God. For example, think about the furniture in the Mishkan; a box that contains the tablets of the law, and some historical artifacts from the time our people spent in the desert. There is a candelabra, a table with bread on it; an alter for sweet smelling incense. These are not things that God needs. God does not need historical reminders, oil lamps, bread and incense. We need them to give us some sensory appreciation since God is beyond all of our senses.
According to the Torah, where can we find a visual representation of God? To see the face of God we will have to look into the faces of the people around us. We are created in the image of God and if we seek to find God, we need to look to others and look deep inside ourselves. What does it mean when the Torah tells us that God wants to dwell among us? First of all, it means that the relationships we have with other people are where a true understanding of God can be found.
When we are kind to each other, when we reach out to help each other. When we take the time to think about how someone else feels before we act, we are creating a space where God would like to dwell. When we act, even against our own self interest, if we are doing it for the right reasons, then God will want to dwell among us. Think about Yom Kippur, the holiest day on our calendar. Getting God to forgive us is actually quite easy but it is easy only after we have reached out to receive forgiveness from each other. It is easy to be at peace with God, we only need to first be a peace with our neighbors.
What applies to the Temple of Jerusalem can also apply here in our synagogue. We know what we need to do to be in God’s presence right here in Delray Beach. Our surroundings are beautiful. This synagogue has created a quiet space that helps us promotes our contemplation of God. But the surroundings of Temple Emeth are not for God. The comfortable chairs, the artwork, the siddurim and humashim, these are all here for us to use. They do not represent or call down God to our community. It is our actions, the Mitzvot that we perform, the acts of kindness we show each other that make this a place where God would love to join us.
I often look at this saying in front of the ark. Da Lifney mi atah omed. “Know before whom you stand.” It is a rather profound statement, deeply spiritual if we take the time to consider it. “Know before whom you stand.” Think about what it is asking us to do. What does it mean to know? Can we know anything about God. What does it mean “Before?” Is God in front of us, behind us, beside us or all around us? “Whom.” Just what kind of a “who” is God anyway? Clearly God has no body, but is God just a conscious idea? Is God consciousness itself? Can we locate ourselves before God if we are not sure even who or what God is? I am standing, but who am I in relationship to God? God is eternal and I am finite. God is everywhere and I am here. God is good and I struggle to do good. Who am I and why do I deserve to stand before God? What if it doesn’t really mean that I have to stand but it means I should consider that God dwells with me all the time and I have to live my life contemplating just that thought. This saying over the ark seems to be telling us that we should treat every minute as if we are being watched and judged by God.
That idea is a very frightening thought. Could we even exist if we were being judged by God all the time? How could we ever live up to the standards that God has for us? We know in our hearts that sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we don’t do what is right because we are tired, frustrated or angry. If we were always in God’s presence and if God were always judging us we would soon become paranoid or depressed. We could never live up to that standard, no matter how hard we may try. This is why it is so important never to forget that God loves us. We are standing in the presence of a loving God. A God who cares about what we do, about what we think and a God who wants us to live better lives.
God is our Creator, so God must be more like a parent than a judge. God knows our frailties and our faults, and God loves us anyway. Sometimes we do things in life because we know that our mother or father would have wanted us to act that way. It is the example of the loving relationship with our parents, a relationship that never dies, that can describe what our relationship with God must be like. God helps us live better lives and God loves us when we fall short, so we will have the strength and courage to try again.
I will get political here for just a minute, what do you think would be different if our political leadership contemplated their relationship with God in their deliberations and choose not to contemplate what the next election might bring? Such a political life would be filled with a representative trying to do what is the right thing for the people he or she represents and should that effort meet with failure, then our leaders would have to get back up and keep trying. Politicians who contemplate their relationship with God would be planning for the future and not deferring to the future what may not be politically expedient today.
When we build better relationships with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors; when we extend our hands and our hearts to others; When we feel the pain of those around us and let that pain move us to ease their pain; in all of this we are building a Mishkan, a sanctuary to God. A place where it is possible for God to dwell among us. When we are angry with each other, careless and inconsiderate, we do not create that holy space, and God is far away. With just a change in attitude, however, we can span the chasm and find ourselves once again in God’s presence.
It is fine to build beautiful buildings. It is better to build bautiful relationships. It is important to do the right thing. It is even better to have the right attitude. It is wonderful to be at peace with the world, it is even better to know that when we are at peace, we are in the presence of the Divine.
The Temple of Jerusalem is gone. We no longer have any of the furniture, wall hangings or sacred instruments. But we still know that God dwells among us. God is right here when we love our neighbor as our self. That is the sanctuary, that is the holy space, where God delights to dwell.
May we find our way to kindness and compassion and may they always lead us into the presence of God as we say…
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM