“Let them build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.”
God asks the Israelites to bring donations for the construction of a portable sanctuary that they will carry with them through the desert. The people’s response shows how honored they are by the request; they contribute such an abundance of precious materials that God finally has to tell them, “Enough — stop giving.”
Yet all of this raises a rather obvious — and still quite relevant — theological question: why does God need a building in which to dwell? Isn’t the Holy One everywhere, beyond space and time? Even today, many people experience God most intensely outside of traditional houses of worship — in nature, art, music and more. So why construct a “house” for the Source of Life?
Classic Jewish commentators answer with a close reading of the text itself. They note that God does not say, “Build me a sanctuary, so that I am dwell in it (b’tocho).” Instead, the Torah teaches that if the Israelites construct the space properly, God will dwell among them (b’tocham). As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, “God’s presence is not found in a building. It is found in the hearts and souls of the people who fashion and sanctify the building.”
In other words, the Holy One does not need a house — but when we work together in harmony, with a shared sense of purpose and dedication, we open ourselves to the Divine Presence. The point of the whole enterprise is not to construct a magnificent structure for God (after all, who could do better than, say, the Grand Canyon?); the purpose is to sanctify our selves and invite God into our lives by creating community. The sanctuary that we build is not nearly so important as the way that we build it. If the labor promotes peace and compassion, it succeeds, even if the end product is very simple. If by contrast, the labor ferments division, jealousy and anger, then it fails, no matter how magnificent and ornate its fruits may be.
This lesson could not be more timely. God does not dwell in the infrastructure of our churches, mosques or synagogues, no matter how beautiful they may be. God dwells in us, when our churches, mosques and synagogues are true sanctuaries — when they are open to all people, especially the oppressed and vulnerable. We build God’s world when we reach out and welcome law-abiding immigrants and refugees — whether they are “legal” or not.
God needs us to be God’s eyes and ears and hands and hearts, working in the world.
God asks us to make our individual lives and those of our congregations, our communities, our cities, our state and our nation into holy dwelling places for the Divine Spirit.
In this critical hour, God asks all of us: Be a place of sanctuary, so that I may dwell among you.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.