Anyone who has lived in New York City is familiar with the challenges of "small-space living." When I was apartment hunting in New York, I looked at one apartment where the kitchen was so small, the refrigerator was placed directly in front of the kitchen sink. In order to wash your dishes, the real estate agent explained, you could just stand off to the side and reach in. In the apartment I ended up taking, one of the bedrooms could only fit a bed — no other furniture at all. Luckily, my roommate was short enough to be able to stand underneath a loft bed to access a desk and a dresser.
Since I left New York, though, the concept of small-space living has come into vogue. HGTV, for example, currently airs three series on the glamour of living in spaces with an average size of 180 square feet. An article describes, "For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences."1
Just a few years after leaving New York City, when my husband and I moved into our not-so-tiny house, I remember wondering how we would ever fill the space. It was so much bigger than any of the apartments I'd lived in. I quickly got used to life in a house, and I'll admit that I much prefer it to the tiny apartment with the side-access sink. But a beautiful midrash on this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'rumah, suggests that God might think about things a little differently.
Parashat T'rumah begins the lengthy segment of the Book of Exodus focused on the building of the Tabernacle, the portable worship space used during the 40 years the Israelites wander in the desert. Theirs is a long journey to the Promised Land, but God will be with them along the way. "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them," God tells Moses in Exodus 25:8. Much of the rest of Exodus is devoted to the detailed instructions and the execution of building the Tabernacle.
In the text of our Torah, Moses seems to take God's instructions without a second thought. But in a striking midrash, Moses questions the very premise of the project, pointing out just how theologically strange the very idea of the Tabernacle is for a religion that views God as transcending all time and space, and having no size, shape, or form:
When the Holy One of Blessing said to Moses, 'Make for Me a Tabernacle,' Moses reacted with astonishment, and said, 'The glory of the Holy One of Blessing fills the upper and lower realms — and yet God says, "make for Me a Tabernacle?!" ' Moreover, Moses looked and saw prophetically that Solomon would arise and build a Holy Temple, which would be larger than the Tabernacle, and that Solomon would say before the Holy One of Blessing, 'Would God truly dwell on earth? [Behold, the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You, and surely not this Temple I have built!]' (I Kings 8:27). In response to this vision, Moses said, 'If Solomon says this regarding the Temple, which is so much larger than the Tabernacle, then how much more so could it be said about the Tabernacle!'. . . . The Holy One of Blessing said to Moses: 'Not as you think do I think. Rather, a structure formed by twenty planks on the north side and twenty planks on the south side and eight planks on the west side suffices for Me! And not only that, but I shall descend and contract My Presence within the tiny space of one square amah.' (Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 34:1)
The image of God self-constricting to fit in such a small space is reminiscent of the idea of tzimtzum described in Lurianic Kabbalah, a school of thought based on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572). It posits that God, who is infinite, filled all space at the beginning of Creation. But the Creation of the world necessitated empty space, so to make room for the world, God self-constricted, taking up less than infinite space for the first time. So while we typically think of creation as a process of making more of something, we see in God's act of tzimtzum, "drawing in," that sometimes making less is the first step to enabling creation.
In the midrash, and perhaps also in the Lurianic myth, God self-constricts because of the Divine desire to be close to human beings. While Moses imagines that God is too exalted to be constrained within such a small physical space, God is undeterred, concerned only with dwelling among the Israelites.
What about the Israelites in Parashat T'rumah? Should we consider them to be part of the tiny- house movement? That would clearly be a stretch, but we might associate them with the tiny-house notion that freely giving up some of our possessions can lead to contentment. After all, the Israelites voluntary donated their valuable objects for the Tabernacle. In Exodus 25:2 we read that "every person whose heart is so moved" is urged to bring gifts for the Tabernacle, choosing to give up private belongings for the sake of the community and for the sake of the community's relationship with God. These gifts, or t'rumot, involve a sacrifice, but they also represent a transformation: the possessions, up until now ordinary — if valuable — objects, become sacred as they are incorporated into the Tabernacle. The gold, the silver, the gemstones, and the dolphin skins are no longer ends in themselves, but means to a relationship.
Of course, both small and large houses have the potential to either strengthen relationships or make relationships more difficult. A large living space can provide ample room for a family to gather together, and to share meals and celebrations with guests. But large living spaces can also create neighborhoods that feel isolated, pushing neighbors farther away from each other. Small living spaces can bring family members together, and encourage neighbors to leave their private houses and gather in communal spaces. But they can also make hosting meals and celebrations feel nearly impossible.
Ultimately, neither tiny houses nor large houses can guarantee that our homes will be sacred spaces. Whatever space we live in, it is our responsibility to prioritize relationships over possessions, and in doing so, discover that ordinary space has the potential to become holy.
1. Teresa Mears, " Could You Survive in 150 Square Feet? The Lowdown on Tiny Homes ," U.S. News and World Report: Money, June 18, 2015
Rabbi Beth Kalisch lives in Philadelphia and serves as the spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA. She blogs at bethkalisch.wordpress.com .
Rabbi Kalisch beautifully points out that neither a tiny New York apartment nor a sprawling home guarantee sacred space. Houses of worship or breathtaking mansions are not hallowed dwellings based upon physical structure alone. Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 34:1 creates the foundational text that God does not require or even desire a palace, for even a small space created with loving hearts is perfectly suitable the Holy One.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a, the Rabbis draw a parallel between loving hearts of a couple's bed and the Mishkan. We read:
When love is strong, a couple can make their bed on [the width of] a sword-blade, however, when love is no longer present, a bed of sixty cubits does not provide sufficient room. This is alluded to in the verses: Of the former age when Israel was loyal to God, it is said, 'And I will meet with you and speak with you from above the Ark-cover' (Ex. 25:22). And further it is taught: The Ark measured nine hand-breadths high and the cover was one hand-breadth; ten in all. Again it is written, as for the House that King Solomon built for the Eternal, the length thereof was three score cubits, the breadth thereof twenty cubits and the height thereof thirty cubits. But of the latter age when they had forsaken God, it is written: 'Thus says the Eternal, "The Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool. Where is the House that you may build for Me?" '(Isa. 66:1).
It's like the story of the Sabbath spice, where the emperor Cyrus tasted the Sabbath meal at the modest home of Nehemiah and then demanded to have his royal chefs duplicate it, only to learn that nothing tastes as blessed as food prepared with "intention," with kavanah. It is the kavanah that creates the celestial on earth.
From the Sanhedrin text, we understand that initially the Shechinah chose to rest on an Ark of small dimensions. But when Israel's heart disconnected from God, even Solomon's magnificent Temple was too small.
The key to places of holiness, whether lavish or modest in size has to do with heart. We admire the homes of celebrities, pristine in their décor and flawless landscaping, and yet we wonder what would warm such perfection? Created b'tzelem Elohim, "in the image of God," we know that when longing to create sacred space it is the gentle beating of hearts in sync, a willingness to be flexible, and a yearning to be generous. These qualities will always comprise the blueprint for a "mishkan."
Rabbi Nancy Wechsler is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, CA.
T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 451–472
Haftarah I Kings 5:26-6:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.717-718; Revised Edition, 559-560