When I was preparing for my bat mitzvah, I felt lucky that my parsha, Va-eira, was action packed. I remember feeling sorry for less fortunate classmates who had to wrestle with more descriptive parshiot, like last week’s T’rumah and this week’s T’tzaveh. Twelve-year-old me balked at the prospect of relating to blueprints and standard operating procedures for a structure that nobody has ever seen, that has seemingly no place in a Temple-less world. Besides, if God was supposed to be everywhere, why bother with building a mishkan in the first place? Didn’t the Israelites have better things to do?
Older and (theoretically) wiser, I now appreciate that the mishkan wasn’t for God at all, and its construction and upkeep were vitally for the Israelites. After generations of enslavement in Egypt, surrounded by idols and idolatry, our forebears had forgotten how to be Jews. They needed to be reminded that even though we cannot see God, God is always with us. The mishkan was not simply a repository for God’s presence. It was a physical and visual reminder of the brit between God and the Israelites. This brit, often in the past translated as a “covenant” or “promise”, can perhaps best be understood as a marriage, and within that context the mishkan functions much like a wedding ring. It isn’t the most important part of a marriage by a long shot, but it serves as a daily reminder of one’s commitment to one’s spouse that can help bolster confidence in times of insecurity or doubt.
Our tradition tells us that the Israelites incorporated the mishkan, or parts of it, into the Temple in Jerusalem, which was later destroyed by the Babylonians and then again by the Romans. The sages’ response to these catastrophes is instructive. Like a person who wears a family heirloom for a wedding band and then loses it, Jews in the first and second centuries had a choice: attempt to replace something priceless or chose to treasure its memory and adapt to daily life without it. In choosing the latter approach, the sages acknowledged that it was God’s presence in our daily lives and not the mishkan that truly mattered. This does present a challenge though, especially for those of us navigating ever increasingly hectic lives.
Without a physical reminder, how do we make space for God in our lives? Our tradition teaches us that we can build a spiritual mishkan when we gather together for t’filah, and it is certainly true that creating an intentional practice of regular communal worship is one way to welcome God into our lives. But for many of us, this is still too high a barrier to overcome. And I get it. Between ballet classes and soccer practice and conference calls and PTA meetings and girl scout cookie sales and laundry and grocery shopping and meal prep and the never-ending assault of emails and notifications, carving out time to come to services can feel less like spiritual self-care and more like just another agenda item to feel guilty about blowing off.
Which is why I would like to share something that happened to me last Friday night. During the Kabbalat Shabbat service some of us shared moments from the week in which we felt God’s presence. We heard beautiful stories about the awesomeness of nature and the revelations that awesomeness can facilitate. After the service, as I was chatting with some of the people who lingered in the Sanctuary, someone I have come to respect very much asked to share her God moment from the week. She told me about going shopping with some friends and at one point in the trip she sat down on a chair to see if it was as comfortable as it was esthetically pleasing. And in that moment, in that busy furniture store, she felt herself quiet down until all she perceived was restorative silence. This moment of silence, which in reality could only have lasted a few seconds, made her aware of God’s presence. I was moved by her story and asked her why she chose not to speak up during the service. “Everyone else was talking about these grand experiences and mine seemed trivial by comparison,” was her reply. But I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth.
When we can find God in the determination of a dandelion fighting through a crack in the sidewalk, or the frenetic bustle of traffic downtown, or the sweet relief of a truly comfortable chair, then we have created for ourselves our own personal mishkan, a place where we can visit with God whenever and wherever we need.