“The Mishkan: Underscoring the Centrality of the Home in Jewish Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Terumah, we begin a series of four parashiot that deal with the building of the Mishkan, the temporary Tabernacle, which traveled with the Jews during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Because this Hebrew calendar year is a leap year, none of the four parashiot, Terumah, Tetzaveh, Va’yak’hel, or Pekudei, are combined as they usually are in a normal year. For those of us who are faced with the grim task of teaching these parashiot, we can really say that these next five weeks are, in effect, an architect’s dream and a rabbi’s nightmare. These parashiot go into excruciating detail concerning the building of the Tabernacle, the making of the garments of High Priest, erecting the building of the Tabernacle and the manufacture of the priestly garments.

It’s been said that “G-d is in the details.” Perhaps because of this concept, rather than be intimidated by the details concerning the lengths and the widths, the cubits and the handbreadths, the gold, the silver, the purple and skins dyed red, it behooves us to try to look at and understand these details because, as we know, every single word and nuance of this description of the Tabernacle reflects a secret treasure from G-d concerning life and the way the Torah wishes us to live our lives.

The most famous operative verse concerning the Tabernacle is found in Exodus 25:8, “V’asu lee Mik’dash, v’sha’chanti b’tocham.” G-d says, They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. Notice how carefully scripture underscores that G-d does not dwell in the sanctuary, but rather that the sanctuary is where the people go to focus their attention towards G-d. Clearly, G-d cannot be circumscribed or limited to any particular space or location.

As we know from our studies of Shabbat, Judaism sanctifies “time” not “space.” While the sanctuaries and the Temples that were built throughout the ages are indeed very holy and valuable places for the Jewish people, we know that our people were able to survive for millennia without a Temple or a sanctuary. In fact, the secret of our survival can be found in the architectural description of the holy Ark which housed the Torah. The Torah tells us that there should be handles or staves as an integral part of the Ark, so that the Ark can be carried by the priests. Most of the furnishings of the Tabernacle had staves so that they too would be portable. But, only with respect to the Ark does the Torah say (Exodus 25:15), “Lo ya’turu mee’menu” They may not be removed from it. Clearly, the Torah is telling us that the Ark must be fashioned in such a manner so as to be constantly portable. We Jews can live without a Candelabra, we can survive without a Table of Showbread, and we can even live without the Altar, but the Aron, the Ark which houses the Torah, the legacy of our life, must always travel with us. Perhaps that is why, when we make the blessing over Torah study, the blessing is constructed in the present tense, “no’tain ha’Torah”, “Blessed are you, G-d, who continually gives us the Torah,” as if the Torah were given just a moment ago.

When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 after the Common Era, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai allowed for various rituals that had always been performed exclusively in the Temple to be replicated in local synagogues. For example, while during Temple times it was permitted to use the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot only in the Temple itself, or to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana only in the Temple, it now became permissible to use these ritual items in local synagogues. The local synagogues became, in effect, a Mikdash Me’at, a Temple in miniature.

It’s important for us to understand the role of the synagogue. In fact, its name is most revealing. We speak of the synagogue as a Beit Knesset, a house of coming together. Even the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was called Beit HaMikdash, the house of the Sanctuary. It is also important to note that even the house of study, the Beit Ha’midrash was also referred to as a home, a bayit. Perhaps what Jewish tradition is trying to powerfully convey to us is that when we go to worship or when we go to study, it should not be as if we are going to some sacred shrine, some Taj Mahal, but rather that we are, in affect, going to our bayit, our home. Perhaps Judaism is telling us something even more profound: that unless our homes become dwelling places for G-d, there will be little chance that our religion will be effectively communicated in our synagogues or in our temples.

There is an old Yiddish saying, a truism, “Vee es kriselt sach, yiddlt sach,” as the Christian world goes, so goes the Jewish world! This aphorism underscores the impact of the Christian environment on Jewish consciousness and values. We know, for instance, that in Jewish history Jewish religious leadership did not have the same organizational structure or extensive hierarchy as the Christian church. Usually a shtetl or small city had a local rabbi. Larger cities had a Beit Din, a court of Jewish law. Very large Jewish neighborhoods had a rabbi for their particular quarter. But there was no such thing as a local pastor or priest. The fact that today most synagogues have resident rabbis is probably due to the influence of the Christian model. Similarly, it was unheard of that a rabbi give a weekly speech or sermon. The rabbi might give a shiur, a class, every single day or several times a day, but public lectures or drashas, were rare occasions indeed, reserved for two special days, Shabbat T’shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and Shabbat Ha’Gadol, the Great Sabbath, prior to Passover when rabbis would call the people together to address them regarding the forthcoming holidays. Again, under the influence of the Christian world, it became fashionable for rabbis to give weekly lectures or sermons. That is no doubt why, over the last two hundred years, the synagogue and the temple have become, for many Jews, the focal point of Jewish life, just as the parish or the church serves as the focal point for Christian life.

To my mind, the growing centrality of the synagogue, as opposed to the home, is misguided. Transformation from home-centeredness has also taken place in many aspects of our everyday life. We have become, by choice, a people increasingly incompetent, which habitually relegates even simple responsibilities to experts and consultants. Since many aspects of life have become somewhat technically difficult, most of us no longer possess the basic skills to take care of even our most basic needs. Whether it’s a faucet that leaks, or a lamp that needs repair, a hem that needs to be sewn, or nails that need to be cut, we farm it out to the experts. And it has left us quite diminished, quite pathetic, primitive in our lack of basic skills and abilities to even bang a nail in a wall to hang a picture. Never mind the inconsequential stuff, we’ve relegated even some of our most important responsibilities to care-takers, so called professional daycare, babysitters, nursery schools. We get rid of our kids earlier and earlier in their lives, sending them off to strangers, who often don’t share the parents’ values or traditions for their care and education.

Today, much of the Jewish world is wrestling with the issues of women’s roles in Jewish life. Many synagogues have chosen to become egalitarian, providing equal opportunities for women to be called to the Torah, to lead services and to serve as rabbis. I personally am fully in favor of expanding women’s roles in education and broadly enhancing women’s educational opportunities, but I think that our parasha and the nature of the Mishkan, convey to us something very different concerning the centrality of synagogue. If I had my druthers, I would decrease the role of men in the synagogue, not increase the role of women in the synagogue. What we desperately need today is an increase of the role of parents in the bayit, in the home. Men, especially men, but women as well, must see their home as the central sanctuary of Jewish life. The Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash were never the central address for Jewish nurturing. At best, Jewish families visited the Beit Hamikdash three times a year. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 127:2, “Im Hashem lo yivneh bayit, shav amlu vonav bo,” If the Almighty does not build the house, they who build it, labor in vain.

The beautiful folk song, “Bilvovi Mishkan Evneh,” perhaps expresses it most poignantly. Now that we no longer have a sanctuary, the composer writes, let us build a sanctuary in our hearts to glorify G-d’s honor; and to enhance G-d’s splendor, let us place in that sanctuary an altar. And for the eternal light, let us take the fire of the akeidah, the binding of Isaac; and for the ultimate sacrifice, let us offer up our souls, your unique souls.

G-d wants our hearts–not pageantry or lip service, not a good show or performance each week from a talented orator or showman. A sanctuary can only be built from the sacred. Sanctity emanates from the inner spirit–and that sense of sanctity is best nurtured at home.

May you be blessed.