Building a House for the Holy One

Parashat T’rumah, Exodus 25:1–27:19

Rabbi Stuart Dauermann

The Mishkan was the place where the congregation of Israel met with God during their wilderness wanderings. It was a place they built, which God inhabited, and where they could meet with him and honor him.

Let’s think together of each of us building a mishkan—a space in the midst of our lives especially prepared to meet with God and honor him.

It is probably a big mistake to imagine we can know God in terms of colossal generalities. Knowing that God is the Lord of the Universe is nice, but you can’t wrap your arms around that. It is too general and “way out there.” When God directed the Israelites to construct the Mishkan, the Holy One knew that we needed to encounter him within the confines of predetermined circumstances.

To know God deeply is to know him in the details. To only encounter God in the universe-sized generalities is to know about him, but must not be confused with knowing him.

How did people encounter God in the Bible and grow in their relationship with him? Here are some of the specifics:

  • Public worship
  • Sacrifices
  • Regular prayer
  • Situational prayer
  • Reading Scripture, study
  • Rituals
  • In-breaking visions, intuitive ways of learning
  • Following the tradition
  • The counsel and prayer of trusted elders
  • Learning from the experience and counsel of one’s forbears
  • Intensification practices such as fasting

What might it mean for us to clear a space and build a structure in our lives where we can meet with God and grow in our relationship with him? What will it take to build our mishkan?

  1. It means recognizing that there is a need to do so.
  2. It means recognizing that this will take effort and sacrifice.
  3. It means taking steps to insure that the effort will be sustained—often through enlisting the aid of others.
  4. It means choosing the right materials and an approach that will achieve the desired ends.
  5. It means taking steps to make sure that one is not being deluded. This is one reason why it imperative to link our concepts, plans, and efforts with community and with tradition.
  6. It is helpful to have a blueprint.

And speaking of tradition, what help is offered for this process by the Jewish tradition?

In his excellent book, On Being a Jew, James Kugel reminds us “The cliché about Judaism is still true: it is not so much a religion as a way of life. And the way to ‘walk through the door’ is to begin to adopt that way of life, to keep the Sabbath and our festivals and say the fixed prayers every day, to observe our laws of pure food and of proper behavior, and in all ways to try and act like a Jew.” (James Kugel, On Being a Jew. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1990, 32-33.)

This underscores the learning-by-doing aspect of Jewish spirituality as contrasted to the “learn first and then maybe do” model prevalent in American culture. For Judaism it is always na’aseh v’nishma, “We will do and thereby understand.”

For Kugel, and for Judaism, the way we build our mishkan is by employing the blueprint of practices provided in the Jewish tradition—our community across time. Seeing Jewish life as a “blueprint” is an apt metaphor. Imagine passing a beautiful home in Beverly Hills, and deciding, “I’m going to build me one of those!” You then purchase real estate and materials at great price and start building. How is that going to go? Not well!

You cannot build such a home from the outward appearance! You must have the blueprint, or you will never get the results you admire. Similarly, we need a blueprint for our mishkan—and Jewish tradition provides that blueprint. And there is perhaps nothing in life more specific than a blueprint: everything is specified and measured to the nth degree.

Kugel points out how we will learn the satisfactions of this kind of mishkan building only by doing so, just as children are brought into Jewish life through patterned practices, before they have any explanations offered them.

Long before they can properly understand, in fact, almost before they can talk, they are taught the difference between the Sabbath and the rest of the week, that certain things are done only in the one and not the other; and shortly after they speak their first words they begin to learn the words of blessing that we say before eating this or that kind of food or washing our hands before a meal. The understanding of God, if any, that may accompany these acts is, of course perfectly childish, but what does that matter? Because a place for understanding is opened up inside the children by their first doing these things, and that place will be filled with greater and greater insight as they go on. (32)

It as we first do that we come to understand.

One cannot build and inhabit this kind of mishkan simply by attending Shabbat services. Kugel rightly points out the “daily-ness” of Jewish life, the sanctification of the mundane and the habitual. The everyday, life-permeating ritual responsibilities and responses of the Jew living in community, at home, at business, in daily life, all of these become occasions for growing in awareness of God and for honoring him in the details of life. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Judaism is the theology of the common deed.”

Adapting the biblically grounded Jewish blueprint/way of life as a means of creating a meeting place with God is our way of building a mishkan. Kugel says,

This is the most basic principle of our way, to open up such a space in our lives and in our hearts. Then such a space will have the capacity to radiate outward. So the holiness of the mishkan radiated out to fill the whole camp of the Israelites during their wanderings, and the camp itself became changed as a result. And it was quite proper that the people be the ones to build God’s dwelling, because this is the way it always must be: the people create the space and then God can fill it. (36-37)

Finally, Kugel reminds us, “The space is made by human beings and can be made quickly or slowly. But when God fills the space it is always quick and never gradual” (38).

May you, may I, may all of us build our mishkan slowly and with care. And may the Holy One come quickly and fill our mishkan, our lives, and our world with his presence.

Soon, and in an acceptable time.

Shabbat Shalom.

Stephanie Escalnate