Carving out Sacred Spaces

I've been thinking a lot about space recently...

I've been thinking a lot about space recently.

Most of us have spent the vast majority of the past year in our own homes. During this time, many of us have spruced up our spaces, enhancing desk areas to accommodate work-from-home (or school-from-home) needs, buying new exercise equipment and kitchen gadgets, hanging art and caring for plants (both indoors and in yards/gardens). At Kavana, our staff has swapped out old conversations about renting rooms from churches and community centers for new ones about how to create a feeling of intimacy, connection, and uplift in Zoom rooms. Recently, I also watched with interest as Biden's team redecorated the Oval Office; busts and paintings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and Eleanor Roosevelt (among others) are now featured prominently there, each specifically chosen to inspire the new president in a particular way. Whether we're talking about our homes, our communal spaces, or our civic spaces, how we delineate and decorate space says a lot about who we are and what we value most dearly.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, seems to get this idea very deeply. It details the contributions that were needed in order to build the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle used by our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness for gathering and worship, and spells out how the spaces are to be laid out and built (almost a verbal blueprint!). The parasha also expounds upon how this space was to be "decorated," commanding in great detail how to make each of the component parts including the ark, table, menorah, and altar. (As an aside, this week's Torah portion can't fit it all in... the commandments and narrative around the mishkan will spill over into the parshiyot for the coming few weeks.)

The instructions about the building of the mishkan contain a deep echo of the Torah's creation narrative. The creation of the world, in Genesis 1, unfolds in seven days; the mishkan section of Exodus picks up on this pattern: there are seven speeches of instruction about the Tabernacle, seven categories of supplies, and seven lamps in the lampstand. Many keywords also connect the two narratives, including some identical Hebrew vocabulary: "made" (va'ya'as / v'asita), "finished" (va'y'chal), "saw... and behold" (va'yar'... v'hinei) and "blessed" (vayivarech). There are many possible interpretations that could help connect these dots to one another. My thought is that just as God creates the world in Genesis, imbuing it with meaning and possibility, so too do human beings take up the charge in Exodus, shaping and crafting the mishkan in another (parallel) act of creation. Building the mishkan according to God's blueprints represents a human attempt to bring God's presence into the world. God creates the universe; humans turn it into sacred space.

Every detail about the mishkan is ascribed meaning too, and commentators from both ancient times and more modern days have spilled much ink in teasing out the deep lessons embedded in every last measurement, material, and component. In past years, I've written and spoken about several examples of what we can learn from the details of the mishkan and its furnishings. If you're curious, you're welcome to click here to watch a Dvar Torah I gave a few years ago as part of the Better Work Better Life campaign, unpacking what it meant that God commanded that the ark was to be plated in gold on both the outside AND the inside. Or, click here to read a commentary I wrote a couple years back contrasting the placement of the two cherubim atop the ark (face-to-face) with the placement of the planks all around (side-by-side). These examples only just scratch the surface. You are also cordially invited to explore this week's parasha on your own -- this link will take you to the text of Exodus 25:1-27:19 in Sefaria, where you can then click on any verse and view layers of commentaries off to the side. The bottom line is that almost every line of Parashat Terumah deserves to be unpacked... as the Tabernacle's architecture and construction are deeply significant, and each detail and every furnishing conceals important truths about the relationship between us and God, and about our aspirations as human beings and as Jews.

Finally, as I have been preparing this week to chant verses of Megillat Esther for Purim, images of yet another physical space are swirling in my head. The opening chapter of the Book of Esther is set in Achashverosh's palace in Shushan, Persia. Many of the descriptions of his palace -- the colored fibers of the wall-hangings (techelet and argaman, blues and purples), the precious metals (gold and silver) -- echo the building instructions of Parashat Terumah. However, King Achashverosh does not have his priorities in order, and there's seemingly no purpose to this opulence beyond his own self-aggrandizement. Rather than seeming like a sacred space, the Persian palace therefore reads as a hollow palace of excesses, in sharp contrast to the mishkan, where there is meaning in the grandeur. The Book of Esther, then, cautions us that although the space and the materials are important, they alone are not enough. Sacred space only comes into being when spaces are honest representations of what happens within, and reminders of who we aspire to be.

As we near the one-year mark of Covid-19 pandemic time here in Seattle, Parashat Terumah gives us the perfect opportunity to pause and consider what each of us has learned about space over this past year. How has your relationship with your home changed during this time? What have you done to beautify your space and/or to align it with your needs, values and aspirations? What communal spaces do you long to return to? What new sacred spaces have you discovered this year?

I eagerly anticipate being able to gather in physical spaces with all of you once again in the future. Until then, I hope that the spaces we create and curate as individuals, the spaces we find in nature, and the virtual "rooms" we share with one another will serve as precisely the sacred spaces we need.

As this week's parasha promises: "v'asu li mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham," "You shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in them" (Exodus 25:8). Like our Israelite ancestors, we have all the tools we need to make a place for God's presence in our lives, and to create sacred spaces that bring out the best in us.

Warmest wishes, from inside the sanctuary of my home,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum