Gods house: a vast temple or humble home inside us


Exodus 25:1-27:19

I Kings 5:26-6:13

A man died and went to heaven where he had the opportunity of seeing not only paradise but also all of the rabbis, teachers and sages of past generations. However, he was crestfallen when ushered into a room filled with these masters, because he could see no difference between their lives on earth and heaven. Just as they had done on earth, they were seated around a broad table, poring over huge tomes opened to complex questions of talmudic law.

Disappointed, he protested to his guide, "How can this be? The rabbis aren't in paradise."

"You are correct," the guide replied. "The rabbis are not in paradise, paradise is in the rabbis."

This story raises the question of whether sacred space is an external, physical location or an internal, metaphysical one. Terumah, this week's Torah portion, raises a comparable question. It states, "Asu li miqdash v'shakanti b'tocham" ("Let them make me a sanctuary in order that I might dwell in them") (Exodus 25:8). But if people are God's domicile, what is the purpose of constructing a physical, manmade space to contain God?

Terumah is not the only place in the Bible that questions the value of constructing a sacred home for God. When dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon commented on the difficulty of confining God to any one space, no matter how grand: "Can God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built" (I Kings 8:27).

Isaiah also noted the impossibility of limiting God to any one physical space:

"The heaven is My throne/And the earth is My footstool/Where could you build a house for Me,/What place could (possibly) serve as My abode?" (Isaiah 66:1).

The Israelite construction of a portable sanctuary is vexing in this circumstance and, especially, in light of God having spoken to Moses in the wilderness and not in a building. Nevertheless, there have always been a number of compelling reasons to erect a physical location for worship:

*A temple reassures people that God can be found in a sacred place where they can feel closer to God than they can almost anywhere else.

*Sacred space fosters community. When people come together for a sacred purpose, they form strong bonds with each other, with the community and hopefully with God.

*Sacred space, be it a tent, tabernacle, temple or synagogue, promotes the idea of the portability of God — a God who follows people into exile, can be located in a new dwelling and survives the destruction of buildings and national borders.

*Sacred worship space teaches people to be high-minded. The Hebrew word terumah, usually translated as "gifts," comes from the root letters reish, vav, mem (ROM), meaning "exalted, uplifted and ennobled." Those who give freely toward the building and maintenance of a synagogue, most often without the expectation of receiving anything in return, find themselves ennobled, fortified, encouraged, supported.

*People will often construct monuments in hope that their lives will have lasting meaning. Such monuments may say, "Once we were here and we amounted to something, and we devoted part of our lives and wealth to a higher purpose."

However, in spite of all the high and exalted reasons for constructing a sacred space, communal building can be misguided, especially when its purpose is antithetical to those cited above. The accounts of the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf are examples of projects built for all the wrong reasons. In the case of the latter, the Israelites had forgotten God's saving power. With Moses away, the frightened, despairing people built an idol, a visual manifestation of their understanding of divinity. They were misguided, believing that by building a concrete representation of God they could draw closer to God. Instead of building a dwelling place for God, they constructed a god.

Although those who settled ancient Israel, as well as succeeding generations of Jews, built magnificent temples devoted to noble purposes, some understood that the greatest house of God is a much humbler structure, a notion articulated by Victor Hugo:

"There is one spectacle grander than the sea,/That is the sky;/There is one spectacle grander than the sky,/That is the interior of the soul."

Terumah provides a Torah student with a greater understanding that sacred space, whether paradise or a house for God, can be an external, physical location or an internal, metaphysical location, or both.