At the beginning of parshat Terumah, God speaks to Moses and says, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” God then lists what will be needed for the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary: gold, silver, and bronze; richly dyed fabrics; linen and skins; fine wood; fragrant oils and spices; and gems.
The people give generously of both their precious materials and the skills of the best craftspeople so that they can carry out God’s commandment to create the place that will house the luchot, the tablets of the Ten Statements, the tangible evidence of the brit, the covenant, and that will serve as the center of worship.
In fact, the people are so generous that the craftspeople involved in the work ask Moses to tell the people to stop donating because they have already given more than enough to complete the project. Clearly, the people were moved to contribute to making God’s sanctuary as magnificent as possible. That makes perfect sense. It’s human nature to want those things that are most important to us to be beautiful.
The rabbis call this hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the commandment. We are encouraged to acquire beautiful ritual objects, to save our best meals and clothing for Shabbat, and, of course, to build beautiful synagogues. When we do so, we emphasize the importance we attach to these.
But, of course, the building itself is not the point. God instructs Moses, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” God doesn’t say b’tocho, within it, but b’tochem, among them. The sanctuary would not contain God — indeed, it could not. Rather, the sanctuary would be a focal point, a symbol that would be a constant reminder of God’s presence among His people.
The chasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk pointed out that b’tochem can be translated as “within them” as well as “among them.” He wrote: This comes to teach that each person is obligated to build a sanctuary in his heart, and the Holy Blessed One will dwell within them.”
We build sanctuaries to experience the presence of God both as individuals and as a community. But it’s not enough to build a building. You don’t encounter God simply by walking into a shul, or even into the Holy Temple. When we want something that is truly important, something of great value, we have to work for it.
Rabbi Tarfon, who lived when the Second Temple still stood, had this to say about work: “The Holy One did not cause His presence to dwell among Israel until they did some work, for the Torah says, ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’”
What is the work that we need to do in order to bring God’s presence into our sanctuaries and into our lives? For Jews, the way to encounter God is through Torah: by studying it, by living by its mitzvot, and, yes, by coming to shul to participate in the public reading of Torah.
You see, it was never about the building.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.