By Reb David
Last week’s Torah portion (Terumah) called for community service to build a Sanctuary: V’asu li mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham / “And they will Make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). What does it mean for God to “dwell among” the People? This week’s portion (Tetzaveh) reveals answers of transformation and opportunity.
The Hebrew root of “dwell” is ש-כ-נ, evoking physical habitation, as in liturgy’s Mah Tovu: מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל / “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel” (Num. 24:5). Our forebears sensed a need for physical dwelling places for God so that we limited humans can experience divine proximity:
אִם אֶתֵּן שְׁנַת לְעֵינָי לְעַפְעַפַּי תְּנוּמָה עַד אֶמְצָא מָקוֹם לַה׳ מִשְׁכָּנוֹת לַאֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב
I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids until I find a place for God, a dwelling-place for the Mighty One of Jacob (Ps.132:4-5).
From “dwelling” and Sanctuary (mishkan) we derive Shechinah, God’s facet of indwelling Presence. Shechinah connotes not a distant deity but a here-present, now-present immanent Power within. Thus, the role of the mishkan (Sanctuary) was to harness transcendence for immanence, to channel the Infinite into a proximate Presence.
But lest we believe that the mishkan was for God’s sake alone, this week’s portion notes that we built a mishkan also for the sake of relationship and liberation:
For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites, and [the Tent of Meeting] shall be sanctified by My Presence. … I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they will know that I, YHWH, am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them (Ex. 29:42-46).
The Sanctuary (today each synagogue and other prayer place) is literally a Tent of Meeting, a place to meet God’s indwelling Presence, a place of two-way communication with the Infinite, so אִוָּעֵד לָכֶם שָׁמָּה / “[God] can meet” – literally be witnessed – in us there (Ex. 29:42). God is not to be merely thought about or believed in: God is to be experienced.
How do we know that we’ve “met” God? When we experience in our kishkes, in a way that can only be sensed as “indwelling,” that God is the Redeemer, the Force of Freedom from our own Egypt (literally “narrow places”). We know we’ve met God when we become part of liberation’s purpose — not for ourselves alone, but that we ourselves become sanctuaries so “[God] might abide among [us]” in the world (Ex. 29:46).
Tetzaveh reminds us that our freedom’s purpose is to channel holiness in the world and thus serve as a living sanctuary for Shechinah, the indwelling Presence. We meet God when our experience creates of us a channel for holiness in the world. As poet Marianne Williamson put it:
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us: it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others (A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” (1992)).
So let’s make of ourselves a Sanctuary, and let’s make of the world a Sanctuary: God will meet us there.