Terumah: What turns a house into a sanctuary

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Exodus 25:1-27:19

I Kings 5:26-6:13

"Hashem, ma'on hayita lanu bedor vador. O God, You have been our home, our refuge from generation to generation" (Psalm 90:1). A minister friend once made this verse come alive for me, pointing out that if I made my home in God, then I need never be far from home. If I knew to take refuge in the Divine, to seek a place of safety in the presence of the Eternal One, I need never be alone.

Oddly, I began to connect this verse with those irritating signs I'd occasionally see marking an apartment complex beside a busy freeway: "If you lived here, you'd be home now." If I lived deeply in the spark of the Divine that abides within me, I would never have to go anywhere or do anything in order to feel safe, to be at home. I could be safe at home any time.

This week's parashah describes the design of the desert mishkan (sanctuary), a spiritual home that will accompany the Israelites on their journey through the desert. The plans for the mishkan are laid out in sometimes baffling detail. Yet if you have ever built or remodeled a house, moved into a new place or moved furniture, then you know how important the aesthetic details are to making a once-empty space feel like home.

What makes a decorated wooden box into a sanctuary? What makes a house a home?

Early in our parashah we find the exquisite little verse, "Make for Me a mishkan (sanctuary) and I will dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25.8). Rashi offers the following comment on this verse: "Make a bayit (house of holiness) in My name." One Chassidic commentator, intrigued by Rashi's use of the simple word "bayit" to describe the sanctuary, concludes that Rashi, and the verse itself, are teaching us something about how to construct a human home that is holy.

The commentator urges that one must "bring holiness into one's private home, so that one's private life, the atmosphere and the essence of one's home are filled with holiness. This is the meaning of the verse, `And I will dwell in their midst'"(Itturei Torah, Vol. 3, Page 210).

What makes a house into a home? Minimally, a home must be a safe place for all who live there and for all who enter. We are finally coming to know that not all Jewish homes are physically safe for the family members who dwell in them.

There is no possibility of holiness without safety. But given safety, what more does it take to make a home into a holy place?

Browsing recently in an airport gift shop, I saw a book, obviously intended for Valentine's Day, called "I Love You Even If." Each page contained a series of images to complete that sentence, with entries like, "I love you even if you use the wrong fork"; "I love you even if you eat your artichoke wrong"; "I love you even if you don't have the measurements of a Barbie doll" and "I love you even if you don't know what I need before I do."

The situations are so simple and the lesson is so obvious — and so difficult. A real home must be a place where human imperfection is not only tolerated but embraced, where mistakes are forgiven before they happen and where people are loved fully in their limits as well as in their gifts. Only such a household can be a place of safety — a sanctuary, a refuge and a place where children, relationships and families can grow and thrive.

A home must also be a place where wonder and confusion can live side by side in safety. A home must be a place where people are free to know what they know, and where people are safe to not know things, even important things. A home must be a place where one can say anything and be anything. A home is a place where it is as safe to cry and sing and pray as it is to laugh and read and speak.

Only in such a place can God's spirit live.

This week, may Parashat Terumah invite us to consider the state of our homes. Are they holy enough places for God — and for us?

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator, justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. She leads efforts on racial justice and inclusion for the Conservative movement and lives in Los Altos. Learn more about her work at rabbiamyeilberg.com.