A few weeks ago, I spent four beautiful days on a meditation retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) at the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus. Spending time in silence, mindful yoga, walking and eating, as well as deep Torah learning with leading scholars from the United States and Israel, I felt that we were doing exactly what the Torah is calling us to in this week’s parasha, Terumah. “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachantee b’tocham — Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). In our ancestors’ time, they made altars, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did, and called on the name of God. Where in our lives today do we build altars, create sanctuaries? In addition to the wonderful synagogues we attend, how else are we bringing kedushah — holiness — into the world that we inhabit?
The striking point of this verse is that it does not say, “Make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it.” Rather, the sanctuary was a fountain of holiness so God’s presence could dwell among the people. In order for God to find a place among us, we need to create sanctuaries of kedushah, of holiness; through our commitment to God’s path and the love it engenders, we find the proper motivation to create societies based on the very holiness we experience. Our world could be modeled on the sanctuary, a place where compassion, justice, peace and love are the centerpieces of the foundation. Our world could be about building bridges, not tearing them down. It could be about creating links to one another, not setting up barriers between us. Our lives could be dedicated to the idea of building social sanctuaries, dwelling places for all people and God.
Dedicating our lives to something bigger than ourselves, something that is holy and eternal, which is the call of our people that blasted forth from the mountaintop of Sinai. The pathways of holiness, which were centered in the mikdash — the sanctuary in the Torah — and continue to be centered in the synagogues and spiritual communities that we create and inhabit, are meant to be lived in the world, spread to the four corners of our Earth, shared with all people, for that was the call of God. And it won’t be easy; it is never easy. The Kotzer Rebbe understood this challenge when he said, in commenting on this verse, “It says ‘asu,’ meaning to work/make, because God’s presence cannot dwell among us without our hard work. It is not an easy task, but rather takes great and sustained effort” (Iturei Torah).
On our meditation retreat, we studied with the great Israeli scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed, who reminded us of the mystical principle that “a stirring from above requires a stirring from below.” Namely, God and the supernal realms are profoundly affected by our actions here on Earth. We awaken God’s love and compassion when we are loving and compassionate; we awaken God’s justice and mercy when we act justly and mercifully; we awaken God’s understanding and discernment when we are more understanding and discerning of the needs of others. “Make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” This charge is about more than just making a building, an altar or physical place for God’s presence to dwell. It is about a social sanctuary, figuring out ways to live our lives as sanctuaries, as receptacles of the holy sparks that flow from above, as vessels of holiness.
Let this week serve as a springboard for creating a more peaceful, open-minded and compassionate world. Whether it is in your own sanctuary, in your home, on the mountain, in the valleys, in the supermarket, on the freeway or in your heart, let God’s presence dwell among us by making an opening for God to enter. Our tradition teaches that if we open our hearts just enough for the head of a pin, God can drive a chariot of love right on in. Let this week serve as a new beginning, one that creates a social sanctuary, a mikdash of the world, with room for all.