Whenever we read this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, I find myself thinking of amazing moments I’ve experienced in nature, like the Shabbat evening my husband and I spent in Sedona. After a short hike, we had settled in close to Cathedral Rock, an area where every vista is Instagram-worthy. With the sun setting behind us, we watched as the mountains glowed brighter and brighter — first a soft rose, then a deep amber, and then suddenly, a stunning, glowing orange. It was the kind of light about which the prayer book says: “The shadows fall, but end of day fills the eye with brightness; the infinite heavens glow, and all creation sings its hymn of glory” (Gates of Repentence, p. 258). And then, just as suddenly, the light was gone: the sun had set. Our eyes still on the scene before us, we began, at the same moment, to spontaneously sing together: “L’cha Dodi likrat kallah. ...” Shabbat had come.
I imagine we can all recall a time and a place when we have been overwhelmed by nature’s beauty, when we have felt at peace, and thoughts seemed to flow more freely: when a sense of awe nearly took our breath away. Perhaps it was on a beach, in the mountains, or when a rainbow stretched across the sky. Wherever our moments have come, many of us can recall a time when we might have exclaimed with the sudden clarity of our patriarch Jacob: “God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).
Why do I think of these moments when I read this week’s Torah portion? Because the key instruction of Parashat T’rumah, the signature command of its text, seems to be antithetical to our experience. We read:
“And let them make Me a sanctuary (mikdash), that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8)
A mikdash, from the same root as kadosh, means something separate and distinct. With all of the amazing settings God has already created — awe-inspiring places where we can encounter the divine presence in the natural world — why would God instruct us to create a structure of our own? If God can be found everywhere, why do we — and why does God — need to come to this specific place named here?
The 19th century Bible commentator, Malbim, explains:
“It says (Ex. 25:8), ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among [or: within] them’ — in them, the people, not in it, the sanctuary.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed., p. 557)
In other words, what invited God’s presence in is not the physical structure we created, but what we showed ourselves to be in creating it. Every act of creation is a manifestation of the divine spark. Yes, at any moment, in any setting, we may suddenly feel God’s presence. We may finally “open up our eyes” and experience God as we marvel at the wonder of Creation. But at the same time that we “find” God in those majestic places, we may feel lost. We may ask in those moments: “God, I think I now have a sense of what You are, but in the presence of such grandeur, what am I?” As the liturgy says: “What are we humans that You are mindful of us? We mortals that You take note of us?” (Psalm 8:5). Yet in a sanctuary — both the ancient Mikdash and our modern-day synagogues — we meet God not around us, but truly amongst us, b’tocheinu, “inside us.”
In the sanctuary, we learn not only what God is capable of, but also what we, as God’s partners, can accomplish. In the sanctuary, we simultaneously protect and transmit the words of Torah. In the sanctuary, our voices blend ancient words with new melodies. In the sanctuary, we come seeking the embrace of the community, and comfort others with our own presence. In a synagogue, we witness all that we have created and we know what we are: We are inheritors from the generations that came before us and the link to those that will follow. And, in the time and space in between, we are God partners in creation.
In the wilderness, as instructed by this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites pooled their resources in order to create a mikdash, a holy dwelling place for the divine. In our day, as Lee Egerton has written, we bring our own gifts to share:
Not precious metals or stones; brightly colored textiles; animal skins, spices, or oil.
We bring You, instead, the gifts of our heart, mind, and spirit, as well as the work of our hands.
We bring You the compassion we show to our loved ones, the patience we extend to our friends, the support we offer to those in need.
We bring You the gift of intellect — the study of Torah, of Talmud, of the guide that is our tradition.
(Adapted from The Covenant of the Soul: New Prayers, Poems and Meditations from the Women of Reform Judaism, p. 19)
We bring You the gift of faith — in our collective and individual powers to change the world around us.
We bring You the gift of hope — that one day, this will be the world You wanted to create.
We bring these gifts, O God, and offer them with an invitation: Dwell in our midst, Adonai. Bless us in our gathering, in the mishkan we create together. And may the inspiration we draw from Your Presence remain with us as we go forth to do your work with renewed energy and purpose.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.