In a famous verse, the Torah says, when talking about the building of the Tabernacle, ‘build for Me a Temple and I will dwell within you’. Not within ‘it’, rather within ‘you’.
All too often I see this as a failing in organised religion – although I recognize that I can only truly speak for Judaism. God dwells in the form, in the ritual and ceremony, not in the person. At its extreme, I see that the form even replaces God. The religion becomes an end in and of itself, empty of its spiritual essence. God has all but departed; only the shell remains. I have been talking to quite a few people this week to create a panel discussion for my rabbis. All of them were once enamoured with Judaism and are now estranged – estranged and often, though not always, bitter and angry. While their issues come in different shapes and sizes, the fundamental problem is always the same – the way they have seen the Jewish religion practiced is devoid of meaning. Why should they stay loyal to something that makes no sense to them, doesn’t resonate and leaves them feeling utterly unfulfilled?
And so, of course, we must get back to basics. ‘Build for Me a Temple and I will dwell within you’. Judaism needs to teach and educate this as a very high priority. God dwells in our hearts and in our souls, not in our Temples and not in our rituals. That’s something that is probably the primary goal that I set for myself as an educator.
But, if I am to be honest with myself, I must ask an even more fundamental question. Why not skip the first part of the sentence altogether? Why, ‘build for Me a Temple and I will dwell within you’? Why not just, ‘I will dwell within you’? Why the Temple? Why the ritual? Why the religion? Why all the form if the purpose is the content? And most especially if I see that often the form, not only doesn’t contribute to the content, it obfuscates it. If the goal is relationship with God, then surely that is something deeply personal and does not lend itself to standardization? Would I want, for example, a fixed format of how to express love for my wife every day? No. Every day is different, and our relationship evolves and develops. If you set the parameters of a relationship in stone, you undermine its vitality. So why? Why a Temple? If I am to pray, why can it not be in my own time and my own way – surely my own soul knows how to express its spiritual nature? Why rituals? Surely the spiritual transcends uniform structure?
Like the best Netflix series, I’m going to leave that one hanging. A question usually provokes more learning than an answer. If you are not religious, your answer is probably, ‘er, good morning, Rabbi’. But if religion does matter to you, take a week to reflect and I will return with my thoughts on this topic next time.
Parsha in a Nutshell
This portion details the building of the Tabernacle. It’s the first fundraising drive in Jewish history. No fancy dinners and no online matching campaigns – just a word from Moses and the money came in. Where is Moses when you need him?!
The Tabernacle was a structure in which God ‘resided’. That obviously doesn’t mean He was there and not elsewhere. It was simply a place in which one could feel and experience God’s presence in a much more tangible way.