God Puts Faith in a People, Not in a Place



This week, we begin to read about the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. In fact, we'll spend the next several weeks on this topic — first, the detailed instructions for making it, and then, after a break for the episode of the Golden Calf, an equally detailed description of how those instructions were carried out.

Terumah begins with instructions to collect materials — gold, silver and brass; richly died fibers; linen and skins; fine wood; fragrant oils and spices; and gems. And the people give generously — both precious materials, and the skills of their best craftsmen and craftswomen — so they can carry out God's commandment to create the place that will house the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.

But pay close attention to God's instruction to Moses: V'asu li Mikdash v'shakhanti b'tokham, "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." The Torah says, b' tokham (among them), and not b'tokho (within it). Even with all this detail — spelled out in some 400 verses — describing the Mishkan and its furnishings, the dwelling place of God is not a building, but a people.

The Jewish world has many beautiful synagogues built with care, piety and devotion, but for Jews, the people and not any physical place is the locus of holiness. Both the first and second Temples were destroyed; we were exiled from our land and scattered to the four corners of the Earth; yet still, the Jewish people never abandoned God, nor did God abandon us.

What makes a synagogue — a place of prayer and holiness –is a minyan (traditionally, 10 adult males; today, often 10 adult Jews), not a building. If you have a minyan, you can daven almost anywhere. Jews hold services in hotel meeting rooms, corporate conference rooms, store stockrooms and at the back of planes.

Teenagers pray at camp by the lake and on tour by the edge of the Grand Canyon. The New York State Thruway even has a designated "Minchah Area" at the Sloatsburg rest stop, so that men who work in the city all week can find a minyan on their way to join their families in the Catskills on summer Fridays.

The sad reality is that many beautiful synagogues are empty. In sanctuaries built to hold 400 or 500 people, no more than 15 or 20 now gather on Shabbat.

Sometimes, of course, this is the result of demographics — the community has changed, and most Jews have moved away. But often, the Jews are there on the membership roster; they're just not in the pews.

Why? They'll tell you: "I don't like the rabbi." "My kids are done with Bar Mitzvah." "I'm not really that religious." "I work hard all week and need a day off." "The people are too snobby."

There are as many excuses as there are people.

And so the building — whether it's an elaborate affair of daring architecture, stained-glass and the latest electronics, or a simple room with an ark and a reading table — sits nearly empty. But God said: V'shakhanti b' tokham, not b'tokho. That building cannot be a place of God, a place of holiness, without Jews.

God said to Moses, "Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him."

But God wanted not only materials and workmanship; God wanted, and still wants, the hearts and minds of His people. To create a Mikdash, a place of holiness, we need more than a building, for God dwells only b'tokham — in the heart of His people.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of Congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa. Contact her at: [email protected]


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