According to Jewish tradition, for millennia God has been instructing us in how to foster a worthy dwelling place for the Divine Presence. How are we doing?
In the beginning it was through the building of a Mishkan. We were told, as found in this week’s parashah, Terumah, to adorn it with precious metals, gorgeous yarn, and exotic skins. Looking back in time from our modern vantage point, one may ask, “Why does God need a place to dwell? Can’t God be found everywhere?” In fact, the rabbis of the ancient midrash ask the same question:
The building of a sanctuary among Israel was begun in answer to a direct appeal from the people, who said to God: “O Ruler of the world! The kings of nations have palaces in which are set a table, candlesticks, and other royal insignia, that their king may be recognized as such. Shouldn’t You, our Ruler, Redeemer, and Helper, employ royal insignia, that all the dwellers of the earth may recognize that You are their Ruler!” God replied: “My children, the kings of flesh and blood need all these things, but I do not, for I need neither food nor drink…. If you now insist upon carrying out your wish, do so, but do it in the way I command you. (Midrash Aggada, Exodus 27:1)
The need for a Mishkan was our own because we were not yet in a place where we could understand that God dwells everywhere. We needed the altar and the candlesticks; we weren’t ready yet for prayer in synagogues or communing moments in nature.
There was also something else that eluded us back in the desert. We didn’t understand that what God wanted more from us wasn’t adornments, but rather a set of behaviors. It’s why we received the Ten Commandments before we received instruction on how to build the Mishkan.
When our focus was on sacrifices, our emphasis was also on our own tribal wellbeing. When our emphasis on sacrifices as a form of worship was exchanged with a growing understanding of what God wants from us, our concern for other people emerged. We see the beginning of this evolution in Hosea, when God instructs, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) It is then continued within the writings of our Sages:
Rabbi Shimon would say…Three who have eaten at one table and have spoken words of Torah, Scripture states, “He said to me, this table is in the presence of God.” [Ezek. 41:22] (Pirkei Avot 3:3)
Knowledge of God and the study of Torah is what bring us closer to God. God can be found wherever we come together to achieve this purpose. However, the study of Torah is not the only thing that God wishes us to pursue. Prophetic messages of our tradition teach us to “execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor” (Zechariah 7:9-10) and to “unlock the fetters of wickedness and to let the oppressed go free.” (Isaiah 58:6) We can find God in our presence when we study Torah, but also when we pursue justice.
It’s also not just in how Jew treats Jew, but in how Jews treat the rest of humanity. Our belief in peaceful coexistence with other people is not a new or modern phenomenon. Maimonides was born in Andalucía (Muslim Spain) during the 12th century and it was there that he came to realize that there were others who could also come close to God. As Maimonides teaches us, all people have the capacity to know God and to be deserving of God’s favor.
Every single person of all the inhabitants of the world whose spirit and wisdom have inspired him to stand before God; to serve, revere, and know God; and to walk uprightly the way God made him; and who removed from her neck the yoke of the numerous calculations that people make; this individual becomes sanctified, a Holy of Holies, and God shall be their lot and portion forever and ever… (Hilchot Shmita 13:13)
Our pursuit of justice is not just for our own people, and when we realize this, we realize that the face of God can be found within all faces of humanity. The Mishkan is no longer a ceremonial location of the past, but a spiritual place of the present. The Mishkan can reside within all of us, but especially so when we come together in harmony and in love. God dwells wherever a heart reaches out in yearning, in prayer, and in actions. When we realize this and engage in acts of tikkun olam, we come closer to creating a world that is worthy of God’s presence.
In this week’s Torah portion the People of Israel felt their hearts urging to bring in whatever gifts and offerings they could to help build a dwelling place for God. In our time, the pursuits of Torah study and finding one another should be that same burning desire within us. Just imagine what the world might look like if we all came together, each with our own separate gifts, but all revolving around the betterment of society. I can’t imagine a better world worthy of God’s presence.
Rabbi Philip Bazeley, R.J.E., is the Associate Rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ.