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Why Did You Build It?

Everyone Comes to My Synagogue

Torah Talk on Pekudei 5779

This week we finish reading the book of Exodus with the Torah portion of Pekudei, which completes the work and dedication of the Tabernacle, first central place of worship for Jews. The purpose of this shrine is a little unclear initially. After all, if God exists beyond time and space, and has no physical manifestation at all—that is, if the Jewish idea of God is correct—why does God need any kind of a fixed place of residence at all?

The answer is that it isn’t God who needs the Tabernacle—or the Temple in Jerusalem, or any sanctuary or chapel of any synagogue or temple anywhere in the world at any time in history. It’s we who need it.

You see, we human beings can think abstractly, and say that we don’t need rituals or rites, that we are much too sophisticated to require places for prayer, or even to need to pray at all. But when we are alone, or in pain, when we are lost, and when our minds aren’t dulled by texts or television or email or Instagram or the internet or other distractions, we find we still have spiritual needs.

And those needs are not abstract, but concrete. We need a place of solace and separation from the outside world, a location where we can seek God, and our own best nature, in serenity and peace. In short, we still need a Temple, just as our ancestors did, for it is there that we find holiness in a world dedicated to the ordinary.

You can pray anywhere. But having a place of beauty and specific sanctity, designed to give tribute to God, can make all the difference.

Think of the difference between the huge office and hotel or residence towers, named for a company or individual to glorify itself or himself, and the sacred spaces constructed to pay tribute to God. Usually the spiritual houses are much smaller than the financial or hospitality edifices. But they mean so much more.

Poet Ruth Brin wrote:

Babel was built to defy deity

To declare the dominion of man.

Bricks were passed from hand to hand for a whole year

To reach the masons at work on the top of the tower.

Thus, when a brick fell they wept

But when a man toppled to his death

They turned their backs.

The tower of Babel was built to glorify man,

But they achieved degradation and destruction.

The sanctuary was built in obedience to God,

In recognition of God’s dominion.

The tent proved to be far greater than the tower;

Hangings of cloth outlasted brick and mortar.

In the ark built to the glory of God

We find our own essential glory:

Righteousness and holiness

In imitation of God.

May our own house of prayer serve as the great tent in the Wilderness did: to deepen our spirituality and bring greater meaning to our lives.

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