Why of all things would God want Israel to make Him a Sanctuary? After all, King Solomon said in 1 Kings 8 “the heavens cannot contain you, how much more this house that I have built!” Yet this is exactly what God wants, for in this week’s portion he commands Moses “let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” If God is everywhere, unbound by space, then why create a home for Him?
The commentator Menachem ibn Zerach, from 14th century Spain, commented in his book Tzedak Laderkh that the text does not say “that I may dwell in its midst (betocho) but rather among them (betocham.) This demonstrates that God’s presence does not rest on the sanctuary by virtue of the sanctuary but by virtue of Israel, for they are the temple of God.” As the servants of God, we play an important role. From our actions, we can either uplift God’s name or defame God’s name.
Malbim, a 19th century Hasidic Russian commentator, takes the image one step further. He asserts that the true מקדש, or Sanctuary, is in the recesses of one’s heart-that each of us should prepare ourselves to be a dwelling place for God and a stronghold for the excellency of His Presence, as well as an altar on which to offer up every portion of his soul to God. Such a reading is surprising to many of us. We are so used to the מקדש as being a consecrated place on which animals are slaughtered and today where prayers are given to God, not our own bodies as serving as that Sanctuary.
Even though we tend to think of places as sacred rather than people, there is merit to the latter. The belief that the body is a Temple is profound, for it indicates that our bodies are not our own to use as we please but rather need to serve a higher purpose. Each fiber of our being is supposed to be utilized for a godly purpose, to serve the will of our creator. As we say each Shabbat morning, כל עצמותי תאמרנה ה מי כמוך, “all of my bones cry out, God who is like you?” True God dwells in a Temple, but not just the shul, for God can be found in each person who does מצוות and helps those around him/her.
A song by Randy Scruggs and John Thompson, originally intended for Church worship, has become commonplace in some liberal minyanim. The song goes like this: “LORD prepare me to be a Sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, Sanctuary for you.” The purpose of this song is not to annul the role of worship within a church or synagogue but rather to indicate that God can be found dwelling in each and every one of us wherever we are at. Our job is to be a servant of God, doing exactly what God wants from us even when it is difficult. This is the message of Sefer Ha-Hinuch, the Book of Education, published anonymously in 13th century Spain, which states “God desires us to perform His commandments for not other reason but to promote our own well-being.” He references Deuteronomy 10:12-13, which asserts that following the commandments is for our own good. It is to our advantage to create a society where we are watching out for those who are vulnerable and need our help. Similarly, it is in our best interest to watch what we eat, to take time to rest, to let our land lie fallow. However, the author of Sefer HaHinuch is aware of how easy it is for us to go astray. That is why he comments that a Sanctuary is needed, “a place of the highest purity to purify the thoughts of man and reform his character.” While we should be serving God in all our deeds, both inside and outside the synagogue, at times we need a holy place such as this to center and redirect us in living the way God wants us to.
As I anticipate becoming a father, I think of the lessons I want to teach my child, of how I want to communicate that life has a higher purpose and that we were brought into this world to do holy, important and Godly work. I want to demonstrate that it is not just in a synagogue that we are the agent of God but rather with every fiber of our being each and every day of our lives. Our task is to create a dwelling place for God everywhere we go, where God can look at us and say “you’ve set a good example-this is a person who I am worthy of dwelling in his/her midst.” May this be our Terumah, our own personal contribution to the world.