Sunday, 1 March 2009

How (and where) to build a place for God

Vasu li mikdash vshechanti betocham


I want to give a sermon about an idea and a verse.


The idea is this.

It is hard for the Children of Israel to feel a connection to the Divine when the magic is turned off.

The thunder and lightening of the moment of revelation has passed and we are left with a bunch of laws and a sense, somehow, that God wishes us to follow them.

And so we stumble, we turn back to old ways and build a gloriously idolatrous cow so we can have something concrete on which we can focus our worship.

And God realises we need something more concrete, Jewish not idolatrous, to ground our worship.

Ain mukdam umeuchar betorah – teach the Rabbis. I know the story of the Golden calf will only be read in the future, but the order of the Torah is not chronology. The calf happened first, and then received the instructions on how to build the sanctuary.


And the essential verse in all this pre-occupation with a sanctuary is the verse at the heart of this week’s parasha

Vasu li mikdash veshochanti betocham.

Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.


And the mikdash  - the sanctuary – begat the beit habehira – the First Temple.

And the First Temple begat the second temple.

And the second Temple begat the first synagogues.

And here we are today.

Still finding our access to our faith and our heritage in the shadow thrown by that first mikdash.


What I want to do today is look at each of the words of this verse.

Unpack, a little, what Heschel would call the soul of these words and see how, by doing this, we can understand more about what we are doing here, at New London.

How did that mikdash function, religiously,

And how can this community function religiously. What will it take and what can it achieve.


Vasu li mikdash veshochanti betocham.

Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.



And make.

It’s an innocuous word.

It’s not the special word ‘create’ or ‘form’ or ‘fashion’

Asu has no connotation of particular spiritual insight. It’s the sort of word one would describe to building a lego model.

The point, I think, is this.

There is no magic involved in creating a place where the divine can dwell. It just takes work. Turning up, volunteering to be part of a building effort.

The work of creating a holy place, a place for dwelling is simple.

Simple acts of welcome, simple conversations. How are you, who are you?

My point is this.

We can build this place of Holiness.

We can build a structure to hold that which is unholdable, beyond.



Usually translated as sanctuary really means a place of Holiness.

And Holiness, in Jewish thought is often misunderstood.

There is a ritual, we will read of it once we get on to the book of Leviticus of rendering an animal, a sheep, a cow kodesh.

It doesn’t mean that it becomes, suddenly, vested with a religious aura, rather it means you, the owner, can no longer have it.

Holiness means beyond.

That’s why we talk of God being Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh – utterly beyond all human reaching.

Because God is beyond.

Rudolf Otto the great twentieth century academic of religion, writes of God as the Holy Blessed One as the Wholly Other.

Swapping Holy [spell] for wholly [spell].

But if God was only about being beyond, wholly other, relationship would not be possible and the key to this relationship is in the next word of our verse.



And I will dwell.

The Hebrew root sochen is from the same root as the Hebrew word for a neighbour, or a neighbourhood.

It’s the same root as the aspect of the Godhead which is most accessible, nextdoor to our lives – the shechinah

This is the sort of God who you can pop round to see, borrow a cup of sugar – who borrows sugar these days?

The word suggests an intimacy, an approachability.

In Kabbalastic thought the Godhead is sub-divided into different realms, called sephirot.

Some are untouchable, unknowable.

Others are closer.

The Shechinah is as close as we can reach.

Just beyond us, just next door.

So in the idea, in this verse is that through our building of this place the utterly beyond becomes a little nearer.

That which is Kadosh becomes the shechinah.



Amongst them.

R' Shmuel Tayib , Tunisian C19th

It does not say that I may dwell in it, but rather among them, in order to teach that the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] does not rest upon the Sanctuary because of the Sanctuary, but rather because of Israel

(Tzeidah La-Derekh  in Iyyunim be-Sefer Shemot, p. 353)


The idea is this.

That all the building, all the material stuff that we do, ultimately it’s not about these exteriorities, these bricks, these curtains and carpets, this silverware.

All this building is a means to an end.

And the end, as Kant would surely have recognised, is us, you and me.

The end is that we feel a sense of connection, to God, to the world in which we live, to one another betocheinu.

A whole slew of Rabbinic commentaries make the point that God doesn’t need a mikdash, God’s glory fills the world.

The need for a structure is ours.

This is very Jewish.

And it applies as much to the notion of a mikdash as it does to any of the formal physical elements of our faith. The candlesticks, the bits of matzah, the sound of the prayers, even the reading Torah.

None of these things are in themselves ultimate.

They are the tools to allow a sanctity to manifest inside us.

And if you have never felt it, I’m sorry.

But it does work, it’s been working for thousands of years.

It’s a form of practice. We have to throw ourselves into our practicing, let go of the little voice that says, why is it really important to light these candles, because ultimately we all know that it is not.

But the candles are the mikdash – the frame which allows the sense of the Divine to find itself in us.

The Jewish experience of the presence of the Divine is designed to be found inside us.


So this is a verse about a dance

A dance between two sides of the divine – the transcendent – the Holy. And the immanent – the tangible.

Between side that is beyond and the side which we can have a relationship with.

That is the promise, the deal, of Synagogue life.

That which is beyond can be discovered betocheinu inside ourselves.

And how do we find it? Through simple acts of commitment, connection, building.


Shabbat shalom


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