You shall make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8)
I've been drawn to this verse for nearly 30 years. The grammatical construct was perplexing when I first came across it as I prepared for my bat mitzvah. Why, as the text implies, does God explicitly state that God will dwell among the people ("them") rather than within the building ("it")? After all, this single verse is set against a backdrop of some of the most detailed verses of the entire Torah. Verse after verse is lent to the construction of the tabernacle, the Mishkan, and its vessels. In exquisite detail. After such complete instructions, surely no one would have questioned a commandment in which God announced God's intention to dwell in the extraordinary architectural achievement of the Israelites.
Yet that is precisely what God DOES NOT announce. Ahead of the most comprehensive capital-campaign in our history, the people are told that their efforts will draw God into their midst. A permanent Presence. If you build it, I will come...and be with you. Not just be in a place, but be with you and among you—to protect you, to comfort you, to inspire you. This Divine promise assured the people of a safe place, a sanctuary, in the midst of the chaotic wilderness.
For much of the narrative concerning the construction of a sanctuary, the word "Mishkan"—usually rendered as tabernacle—is used to describe the structure. The word itself comes from the root sh-k-n, meaning "to dwell." The more familiar Shechinah, which we understand as a feminine aspect of God's Presence, is a related term. Perhaps the use of the word Mishkan to connote a sacred place where God's Presence will dwell gives basis to the Rabbinic notion that the Shechinah, this feminine aspect of God, is what inhabits the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
But that is not the word used in this verse. For the only time in the details of the construction, and one of the few times in the Torah at all, a different word is used and, I would suggest, it is a very deliberate choice. Rather than the word Mishkan, here—in this one verse—the word used is Mikdash. This word, which shares a root with the more familiar terms Kaddish, Kiddush, and K'dushah, implies something else-a holiness, a separateness, a sacredness. And it is a result not of the creation of utensils made of pure, unhammered gold or other precious metals, nor the finest of linens. What brings the sanctity to the tabernacle is the addition of the human element.
Our Movement is at the forefront of recognizing the sacred nature of every person and imagining new ways to create inclusivity. Many of the efforts, it seems, concentrate on those with special needs—which is a most worthy endeavor. And when the resources are limited, it is understandable that those individuals are the ones who take up our energy. This pattern, however, makes it all too easy to forget those whose constant focus is on those with special needs and that they too desperately need our support. A 2007 University of North Carolina study found that 50% of mothers with children with autism had elevated depression scores, compared to 15% to 21% in the other groups. That's a significant percentage in just one subgroup. Regardless of gender, socioeconomic class, and particular special needs, full-time caregivers bear enormous stress as a direct result of caring for a child with special needs. The additional stress that comes with rearing a child with special needs affects the entire family and does seem to impact the long-term survival of marriages as divorce rates are slightly higher in these households.
Providing resources for these parents can make a profound impact on their quality–of–life. What would it take for your synagogue to organize a support group for these parents? Although many community organizations might offer parents' support groups, hosting one in the synagogue will enable these families to establish connections and relationships within the synagogue. It is not uncommon for family circumstances to make social interactions extremely challenging, adding to the isolation many feel. How wonderful it would be to connect these families with one another. Additionally, parents of kids with special needs are far less likely to carve out time for themselves and their own relationships. Developing a safe and engaging kids'–night–out program will allow parents a few hours of respite, something that full-time caregivers sorely lack.
In our synagogues, we often focus energy on ways to elevate our beautiful buildings, with all of their finery, to that sacredness. But this verse reminds us that we ought not direct that energy to the construction of the physical space, but rather concentrate on building a community that provides sanctuary—a true respite—for those among us who are most in need of feeling God's Presence.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is the editor of the CCAR Newsletter and e-Newsletter. She writes regularly for Kveller.com and will be a Contributing Writer to The New Normal: Blogging Diversity, launching on the New York Jewish Week website on February 21, 2013.