Building Our Holy Places
“They shall make me a tabernacle so that I may dwell amongst them.” This verse in this week’s parashah, T’rumah, is significant for all of us who are committed to the building of a strong and committed Jewish community. The desire to have God dwell amongst us is a goal for which rabbis, educators, cantors and other Jewish professionals strive. The ability to create a sense of kedushah (holiness) by the dwelling of God in that space is an ideal for our Jewish community.
There are however, two ways of understanding this verse. The first is by Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, an eighteenth-century Polish Hasidic master, who said that it is the very act of making the sacred space that will make us holy. He wrote that the act of offering a gift to God elevates the donor to a higher level as well. Therefore, by committing to and contributing to the building of our synagogues, our schools, and other Jewish institutions, we will inherently increase in holiness. Zedah La-derekh, a supercommentator of Rashi, understands this verse differently. He understands the verse “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” in the following way. He writes that “the text does not say ‘that I may dwell in its midst,’ but ‘among them,’ to teach you that the Divine Presence does not rest of the sanctuary by virtue of the sanctuary, but by virtue of Israel ‘for they are the temple of the Lord.'” This means that God dwells in this space because of the kedushah, the holiness that we each bring to it. So the question is: How do we merge these two interpretations, since they both clearly have relevance in our lives?
Allow me to reflect on my mishkan, the temporary dwelling space in my life. For the last nine years I have lived, learned and grown at The Jewish Theological Seminary. As a student in the Dual Degree program between Barnard and JTS, as well as a student in The Rabbinical School and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, I have experienced the merging of the two ideas.
The Kripke Tower renovation took place over a two-year period, and I have been blessed over the last three years to study and learn in the renovated JTS. The support from the larger Jewish community, who made this renovation possible, enabled this to be a truly sacred space. The rooms, the artwork and even the elevators reflect the holiness that is emanated by those who support JTS. Through its dedication – as well as the devotion of the students, the faculty and the administration – the JTS community members rose in holiness. This is a reflection of Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev’s understanding of the verse.
But the community was not the only thing that was made holy. The space itself was sanctified by the activities inside. There is holiness as we study our sacred texts and traditions in this space. Whether it is the davening that takes place in the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue, the studying in the Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash, or the gathering in the Kripke Tower, each place is imbued with holiness because of the intentions and the desire of the Israelites.
As each of us lives in our own Jewish community, we must strive to combine both Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev’s and Zedah La-derekh’s understanding of this verse. First, we must find ways to elevate ourselves in holiness. We must find those sacred spaces in our Jewish community that we can elevate through our actions, so that we can truly connect with God. And we must act as individuals and as a community to ensure that our Jewish institutions grow, so that we can each grow in holiness. By merging the interpretations of this verse, we are able to see how God truly does dwell in our midst.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.