This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, contains one of my favorite verses in Torah: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם — usually translated as “Let them make for Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell in their midst.” It comes as part of the instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that our ancestors were instructed to build and to carry in the wilderness.
The word mishkan shares a root with the word Shekhinah, the name that our mystics gave to the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. They imagined a transcendent aspect of God, “up there,” far away, unreachable, inconceivable — and an immanent aspect of God, “down here,” in creation, as close to us as the beating of our own hearts. Some would say that the mishkan was the house our ancestors built for Shekhinah — the place where God’s presence could dwell.
It was portable, with rings built into the sides and poles that went into the rings, so it could be carried in the wilderness. That teaches us that we can carry God with us wherever we go. I like that idea of the portability of spiritual practice. We don’t have to come to a special place in order to have spiritual lives, even though it’s nice to have a special place as beautiful as this one! We carry our spiritual lives with us. That really works for me.
And… going back to that verse from Torah with which I began, I want to offer a different translation that changes the meaning in a subtle but important way.
I like to read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם as “Let them make for Me a holy place, that I might dwell within them.” The word בתוכם can mean either “in their midst” or “within them,” and I prefer the latter. When I read it that way, it tells me that when we build structures for holiness in our lives, then God dwells in us.
When we take the time to make Shabbat special and separate from the workweek, God dwells in us. When we take the time to feel our inner sap rising at Tu BiShvat, or to celebrate the topsy-turviness of how costumes can both conceal us and reveal us at Purim, God dwells in us. When we retell the story of our liberation at Pesach, and reflect on the meanings of liberation in our own lives, God dwells in us. When we make a blessing before we eat, or say the shema before falling asleep, or murmur a prayer for gratitude upon waking, God dwells in us.
These are all explicitly Jewish acts, but I think this teaching has wisdom to offer us as human beings, not “just” as Jews. What if we could live with the intention that when we approach each moment with mindfulness, God dwells in us? How might that change our sense of everyday life?
Try this on: when we are true to who we most deeply are, God dwells in us. When we treat each other with respect, God dwells in us. When we live with integrity, God dwells in us. When we seek meaning in our lives, God dwells in us.
The ultimate source of meaning, and wisdom, and love, isn’t just “out there” somewhere: it’s also “in here,” in our own hearts. Our whole lives can be the structures within which holiness can dwell.
Offered on March 3, 2017. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.