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

(Revised and updated from Terumah 5760-2000)

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 מִשְׁכָּן , 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, Vayakhel, or Pekudei, are combined as they often are in a normal year. Together with parashat Kee Tisah, we will be reading five consecutive parashiot devoted to the building of the Tabernacle. These parashiot often go into excruciating detail concerning erecting the Tabernacle and the manufacture of the priestly garments. For those of us who are faced with the daunting 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.

It’s been said that “G-d is in the details.” Perhaps because of this perception, rather than be intimidated by the details concerning the measurements and contents of the Tabernacle–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. As we know, every single word and nuance of the description of the Tabernacle reflects a most valuable lesson from G-d concerning life and the way the Torah wishes us to live our lives.

The most well-known verse concerning the Tabernacle is found in Exodus 25:8, וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָםּ , G-d says, “They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” Clearly, G-d cannot be circumscribed or limited to any particular space or location. Notice how careful scripture is to underscore that G-d does not actually dwell in the sanctuary, but among “them”–the people–and that the sanctuary is to serve as the location where the people are to go to focus their attention on G-d.

As we know from our studies concerning 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, the Jewish people were able to survive for millennia without a Temple or a sanctuary. In fact, the secret of Jewish survival is not to be found in the in the coverings or columns of the Tabernacle, but rather in the architectural description of the holy furnishings, particularly 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 and transported by the priests. Most of the furnishings of the Tabernacle also had staves so that they too would be portable. But, only the staves of the Ark were never to be removed. The Torah declares, Exodus 25:15: לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ , They [the staves] may not be removed from it.

Clearly, the Torah instructs that the Ark must be fashioned in such a manner so as to be constantly portable. Jews can live without a candelabra, can survive without a Table of Showbread, and can even live without the Altar, but the אָרוֹן , the Aron, the Ark which houses the Torah, the legacy of our life, must always be with us. Perhaps that is why, the blessing over Torah study is constructed in the present tense, נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה , “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, during Temple times it was permitted only in the Temple itself to sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashana and to use the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot. After the destruction of the Temple, it now became permissible to perform these ritual practices in the local synagogue, which became, in effect, a מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט , a Mikdash Me’at, a Temple in miniature.

It’s important to understand the role of the synagogue. In fact, its name is most revealing. We speak of the synagogue as a בֵּית־כְּנֶסֶת , a Beit Knesset, a house of coming together. Even the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was called the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ , Beit HaMikdash, the house of the Sanctuary. It is also important to note that the house of study, the בֵּית־מִדְרָשׁ , Beit Midrash, was also referred to as bayit, בַּיִת , a home. 

Unquestionably, Jewish tradition is trying to powerfully convey the message, 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 effect, going home to our bayit. Perhaps Judaism is teaching 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 secular and non-Jewish environment on Jewish consciousness and values, and even practices.

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. A shtetl or small city was lucky if it had a local rabbi. Larger cities had, in addition to a chief rabbi, a בֵּית־דִּין , a Beit Din, a court of Jewish law. Very large Jewish neighborhoods at times had a rabbi for their particular quarter. But, there was no such thing as a local pastor or priest for every place of worship. The fact that today most synagogues have resident rabbis is undoubtedly due to the influence of the Christian model.

Similarly, it was unheard of that a community or city rabbi gave a weekly speech or sermon. The rabbi might give a shiur, a Torah class, every day or even several times a day, but public lectures or drashas, were rare occasions indeed, reserved for two special days on the calendar, Shabbat Teshuva, 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.

It is only quite recently, under the influence of the Christian world, that 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.

Unfortunately, the growing centrality of the synagogue, as opposed to the home, is taking its toll on contemporary Jewish life. The transformation from home-centered religious practice to communal religious practice has also taken place in many aspects of everyday Jewish life. We have become, by choice, a people of increasingly incompetent practitioners, habitually relegating even simple religious responsibilities to experts and consultants. Tasks, that were previously performed personally, such as koshering meat, caring for mourners, even burying the dead, are often relegated to “professionals.”

This similar transformation is also taking place in general society, as many aspects of life become increasingly more technically challenging. Most household members no longer possess the simple skills to care for even the 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 experts. This reliance on others, who are presumably more skilled, has left us quite diminished, quite pathetic, and primitive in our lack of basic skills and abilities to even bang a nail in a wall to hang a picture.

Never mind this “inconsequential” stuff. We’ve relegated even some of our most important and vital responsibilities to care-takers. Children are sent off for their care and education earlier and earlier in their lives, often to strangers, who frequently don’t share the parents’ values or traditions.

Today, much of the Jewish world is wrestling with the issues of women’s roles in Jewish life. I personally, fully support expanding women’s roles in education and broadly enhancing women’s educational opportunities. As Educational Director at Lincoln Square Synagogue for 15 years, I was part of the team that led the revolution in adult Jewish education for women in America. But, I believe that our parasha and the nature of the Mishkan, is conveying a very different message 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 (who too often use the synagogue and the Bet Midrash as an excuse to be absent from home), 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 or four times a year. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 127:1, אִם השׁם לֹא יִבְנֶה בַיִת, שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ , If the Al-mighty does not build the house, they who build it, labor in vain.

The beautiful folk song, attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, בִּלְבָבִי מִשְׁכָּן אֶבְנֶה , “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh,” perhaps expresses it most poignantly. The composer reflects on the tragic absence of a sanctuary:


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, our 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 what is sacred. Sanctity emanates from the inner spirit–-and that sense of sanctity is best nurtured at home.

May you be blessed.