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Creating a Mikdash: Then and Now

  • Creating a Mikdash: Then and Now

    T'rumah, Exodus 25:1−27:19
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:8–9)

D'var Torah

This past October, I was fortunate to celebrate two special occasions: my daughter’s as well as my niece’s bat mitzvah. These events took place only a few weeks apart, yet in sanctuaries 3,000 miles away from each other. When I sat on the bimah in my own sanctuary for my daughter’s simchah, there was no question for me that God was “among us.” Three weeks later, as I looked out over the sanctuary in my brother’s synagogue at my niece’s bat mitzvah, I felt the same way. These are two sanctuaries that look as different from one another as possible—different in size, shape, seating arrangement, architecture, furniture, and so on. It was clear that different hands had built each sanctuary, each with a different vision for worship.

As I looked up to read the various scriptural passages on the wall of my brother’s sanctuary, I was pleased to encounter this text from T’rumah: V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). I began thinking of the myriad of sanctuaries in which I have felt God’s presence: the one in which I grew up, the church chapel that had been transformed for use when a synagogue was not yet available, the public school auditorium used for Kabbalat Shabbat services by a congregation in its formative years, the makom T’filah we create at HUC in Los Angeles in a room previously used for many other purposes, and then, of course, the pinat T’filah and the “grassy areas under the trees” that we transform into sanctuaries for t’filahat camp. Each one of these is a mikdash, each different from the rest, yet all serving the same purpose.

Many commentators address the fact that this text reads “so that I may dwell among them” as opposed to “in it.” Others question why God instructs all the people—both men and women—to build the mikdash. And, why does God do so now?

Up until this point in the Torah, we read how our ancestors prayed to God in fields, by bodies of water, or wherever they felt moved to pray. Abraham and Isaac prayed on Mount Moriah, Jacob in the desert, and Moses at an ordinary bush and then on Mount Sinai. However, once the people receive the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai, the prayer experience changes. That powerful event, when God chooses the Israelites as a people, to carry the law, is pivotal to their existence.

Commentator Umberto Cassuto points out in leaving Mount Sinai, the people are fearful that their connection to God might fade as they move onward in their journey. They want assurance that God will always be with them (A Commentary on the Book of Exodus [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1951], p. 319). Rabbi Mordechai Katz comments that God knew the limits of humankind and that the people were not capable of understanding that God is everywhere. Therefore God instructs them to build the mikdash—not for God to dwell in but to serve as a tangible symbol, for the people, of God’s presence (Lilmod Ul’lamade: From the Teachings of Our Sages[New York: Jewish Education Program Publications, 1978], p. 87).

In T’rumah, God sets forth instructions for the building of the mikdash including elaborate details for the blueprint and materials to be used. This was to be a difficult and labor-intensive task, as emphasized by the repeated use of the word laasot, “to do,” found 200 times in the sanctuary-building story. By attending to the extraordinary specifics we read in the verses that follow, men and women become active participants with God, rather than simple recipients of all that God has bestowed on them. God’s message was this: Yes, I will be with you always, but you must be willing to work hard for that assurance.

Today, we, too, go to great lengths to build beautiful sanctuaries with stained glass windows and royal colors. We position them so that those who worship within will be able to enjoy the beauty of nature. We enter them both for private prayer and to join with others when community support is essential.

But according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the original mikdash was more than just a building: it was a symbol of the covenant relationship. The mikdash was created when the people sought to live their lives according to Torah. The result of fulfilling those commandments is God’s presence in our lives (The Pentateuch[London: L. Honig and Sons, 1959], p. 306).

The Israelites who received the Torah from God at Mount Sinai needed reassurance that God would be with them always. They did not build the mikdash so that they would have a place in which to find God. They were committed to fulfilling the mitzvot, and the mikdashwas a visible reminder of God’s promise to be with them as they lived that life of Torah.

Our sanctuaries cannot become the only places we go to find God. Yes, they can certainly be places where we can quiet our minds and hearts, or where we find comfort and community when loneliness diminishes our spirit. And they may be places we may go to find answers to life’s questions or to atone for our mistakes. But God did not intend for us to build the mikdashso that we could find God in it. God’s presence is meant to be felt in living a life of mitzvot—the mitzvot that were entrusted to us when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai.

For many though, a personal “sanctuary” is where they experience God—in music or art, or in private meditation. Can that experience serve as their reminder of the relationship that the Israelites forged with God? The Israelites required a tangible object to remind them of God’s presence. What if we no longer need a tangible reminder to affirm our understanding of and commitment to the covenantal relationship? What role, then, can the mikdash—the sanctuary that God instructed the Israelites to build—play in a Jew’s life? The answer may not be as simple or clear to us as it was to the generation of the Bible. However, our task is still to work as hard as our ancestors did, not necessarily in building the mikdash, but in remembering what it stood for then and what it can continue to represent for generations of Jews to come.

By the Way

  • “Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk surprised a number of learned people who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?!” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells where we let God in.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters [New York: Schocken Books, 1961], p. 277)

Your Guide

The Israelites desperately wanted to feel God’s presence and worked hard to build the mikdashso that God would “dwell among them.” We, on the other hand, may also be desperate to feel God’s presence but tend to think of ourselves as “in control,” able to feel God’s presence when we “let God in” or expecting God to be there when we ask.

How can we move toward once again being a people who live lives of Torah in order to feel God’s presence and not individuals who expect that God will automatically be among us always? How are we working hard to maintain our half of the covenant?

Madelyn Mishkin Katz, R.J.E., is the Director of Student Services at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.

Reference Materials: 

T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
Haftarah, I Kings 5:26-6:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 717-718; Revised Edition, pp. 559-560