Well, Toto may not have been aware of it, because he probably wasn’t Jewish. But there is such a place, and we begin to read all about it in Terumah, this week’s parasha. It’s the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle and Ark, and in this week’s portion, Moses is getting all the instructions from God as to how to go about building this thing. The instructions are remarkably detailed in materials, measurements, design , form, and function. After receiving them, Moses will turn around and give the instructions to the people so they can begin building the Mishkan.
There are so many things to explore in this parasha. What does the Mishkan symbolize? Different commentators focus on different things: creation, Sinai, repentance, etc. It’s a good thing we read this story each year, because we get to revisit it and see new symbolism in it each time. But I think one question to start with is, “Why do we need one of these things in the first place?” Who is this structure for? In one sense, it’s clearly for God: “v’asuli mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham – Make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8) But if God’s presence is felt everywhere, and we Israelites are on the move anyway, why do we need this little spot of holiness in the wilderness?
When I studied this parasha with my Tuesday class last year, one of the things we focused on was this idea of distinguishing between kodesh and chol. We say the phrase, “bein kodesh l’chol each Saturday night as we say goodbye to Shabbat, and welcome the new week. The phrase is usually translated as “between sacred and secular”, but that’s not the truest meaning. Kodesh is “holy”, but a clearer definition might be “separate”. Chol actually means sand. How often do you hear the phrase, “draw a line in the sand”? What we’re really saying is “here, not there.” This area of sand is different from that area of sand. And this area of sand is a place where we’re going to behave differently, do different things with different clothes (the priestly garb, which we get to in a few weeks), with different props and different lines to say. We know this to be true, because our behavior changes depending on the clothes we wear (play clothes, jeans, dressy clothes, etc….ok, not our kids, maybe, but hopefully adults!) and where we are (playground, synagogue, office, the Oval Office, etc.) The formal places have weight, literally – we respect them (kavod), which is the same word for heavy or weighty.
Moses is getting a blueprint here, of how to build a holy place. As I mentioned last week, Mishpatim began the conversation of creating a blueprint for a holy , or sacred, community. Now it’s time to talk about creating a sacred space for that community. Why? God doesn’t need it, but as a fledgling community, we do. God is teaching us in a concrete, human, experiential way about our relationship with God. The Mishkan really is a place where we can’t get into any trouble – it’s where we come closer to God. Yes, one can make a mistake “in there”, and the Torah tells us what happens then, too, in the coming chapters. And, being human, it’s bound to happen. But the point is that the Mishkan in this sense is a refuge, a haven, a place to exhale the “chol” from outside and inhale the “kadosh” from inside. When you’re bringing such a special place into your community, you’d expect that you’re going to build it with great care and attention to detail. These instructions are about tapping into a process of building a new community. There is a distinction between the internal and the external, but we’re being taught that when we can get the two realms to work in harmony, when we strive to match the two spheres of our humanity, we have truly built a sanctuary where God can dwell with us.