“Make for Me a Sanctuary, And I Shall Dwell in Their Midst”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, G-d tells Moses to instruct the Jewish people to collect all the valuable materials that are needed to build a Mishkan–a Tabernacle. In Exodus 25:8, Scripture states: “V’ah’soo lee mik’dash, v’sha’chan’tee b’toh’cham,” They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.

The commentators immediately note that the verse reads: “v’sha’chan’tee b’toh’cham,” and I shall dwell among them. It does not say, as we might have expected, that G-d shall dwell in it–-in the sanctuary.

The Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that traveled along with the people of Israel throughout their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, is not a dwelling place for G-d. G-d, as we know, is omnipresent. He is to be found everywhere, and at all times. The purpose of the sanctuary, then, is not to serve as a dwelling place for G-d, but rather to serve as a place for the Jewish people to focus on G-d.

In his well-known statement justifying fixed prayer, the famous British scholar Israel Abrahams (1858-1925) quipped: “Those who pray in any manner and in any way, are likely to pray in no manner and in no way!” Similarly, people who have no place to focus their prayers will most likely not focus at all! Once again, we find Judaism concretizing the abstract in order to make Jewish life more realistic and palatable for its adherents.

But doesn’t the concept of a sanctuary contradict the basic Jewish premise that G-d is to be found everywhere, at all times? It probably does. But the overriding importance of the Jewish people being able to focus their prayers takes precedence over the philosophical conundrum about G-d being limited by time or space.

But where does G-d truly dwell? The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where can one find G-d?” He answered in Yiddish, “Voo m’lust Em arein,“–-wherever He is allowed to enter!” This is the meaning of “They shall make for Me a sanctuary.” If the innermost elements of the human being are “saturated” with love and reverence of G-d, then, says the Kotzker Rebbe, “v’sha’chan’tee b’toh’cham,” G-d will dwell inside them–in the people’s innermost core!

The Malbim says it quite forthrightly. Every Jew is to build a Tabernacle in his or her own heart in which G-d is to dwell. Not only must every Jewish home be infused with sanctity, and every private life be saturated with holiness, but the very core of the human being shall be transformed into a veritable sanctuary.

This metaphor is most beautifully expressed in a poem found in Sefer Chareidim, attributed to Rav Elazar Azikri (1533-1600, Halachist and mystic of Safed), and put to hauntingly beautiful music by the contemporary composer Rabbi Shmuel Brazil. Known in Hebrew as “Bil’vavi Mishkan Evneh,” the poet writes:

In my heart I will erect a sanctuary to glorify His honor,
And in the sanctuary I will place an altar,
To acknowledge His splendor.
For the eternal light, I will take the fire of the Akeidah,
And with this fire, my singular soul I will sacrifice before Him.

This poem says it all. The Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, is not meant to be a place where tens of thousands of Jews gather for perfunctory services or robotic prayer. It is meant to be a place that will serve as an inspiration for Jews to light a flame in their own hearts, so that that flame will rise as high as the flame of the Akeidah, the flame used in the Binding of Isaac.

For the past 2,000 years, Jews have been bereft of both Tabernacle and Temple. We have in its stead the “mikdash m’at,” the miniature temples in the form of synagogues that are found in Jewish communities throughout the world. The challenge of our generation is to light the fire of the Akeidah in each one of these synagogues, to feel the passion of being Jewish, and to hear the music within our hearts that will burst forth as it sings praise to G-d.

Come, children of Israel, let us build the Tabernacle–-let us build it in our hearts.

May you be blessed.