Do we believe in sacred space?

Another way to think about the Temple—and about loss.
August 16, 2016

When you think of a sanctuary, what do you think of? Your synagogue? Your kid’s day school? Your grandmother’s house?

Now what about tragedy? Do you think of a loss of a friend? Terrorism? The Shoah?

We’ve just finished the three-week mourning over two destroyed Temples. It’s the time when we come face to face with these questions more viscerally than we do any other time of year. We’re asked to deeply consider what a lost sacred space meant to us. And we’re asked to think deeply about the tragedy of losing it.

It’s also the time when most of us put up our hands and have no idea how to feel the way our religion asks us to.

Some of that frustration comes because, simply, we lost the Temple a very long ago. But perhaps some of that frustration comes because we’re thinking about sacred space in the wrong way. And we’re thinking about tragedy the wrong way. 

To see what I mean, consider the closing passage of Exodus.

The Israelites have nearly completed their first massive building project: the Mishkan—the proto-Temple which they will carry through the Desert and into Israel. They have donated golds, silks, wool, silver, and copper. They have given time and talent. They do this because God has said: You shall build me a Mishkan—a Dwellingthat I may dwell amongst you.

The people build God a dwelling; and then God comes down and dwells in it—in the form of a cloud:

When Moses had finished the work, the Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of HaShem filled the Mishkan.

This cloud, of course, should have ended the story. Then the narrative would flow directly into Leviticus, which describes the ceremonies that will take place in the Mishkan, where the Cloud is. The building is made; God settles in it; here is what you do in that building.

But that isn’t what happens. Instead, we hear one more detail:

When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until it lifted up.

Once we hear about the Cloud, we hear that, later—after the entire book of Leviticus has passed—the Cloud will be used for navigation. And indeed, the narrative elaborates on this detail in the book of Numbers—where it makes sense, coming at the moment when the people prepare their journey from Sinai and across the Desert:

And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.

But here at the conclusion to the construction of the Mishkan, the detail makes no sense.

So why is it here?

To answer that question, it’s useful to think about the trauma involved in this journey—this following of the Cloud. In every encampment, the people rest around the Mishkan. The Cloud is right there, so close the people can see it with their own eyes. And then, when it’s time to move, the Cloud rises up. And because the Mishkan is modular, the priests deconstruct the structure to carry it on its way.

One moment, God’s presence is within arm’s reach. The next, we’re alone and lost and exposed in the Desert. The people’s whole world comes apart, over and over throughout the course of forty years. This is the kind of trauma that could fill a people with despair.

But the people don’t fall into despair. They do something else. They watch to see where the Cloud will go next. And they follow it. Because they know that sometimes, when your world ends, it’s God’s sign to seek Him in a place you couldn’t have foreseen.

Here’s the point. Making room for God on earth is more complicated than building a space we can go to and sit back and receive Him. It’s building a framework for seeking Him out. And sometimes that means embracing the end of your world. And sometimes that means being willing to upend your life, over and over, as you radically change your perspective of where God might be—of where you need to be to find Him.

That’s not sacred space. It’s something much more difficult. It’s a sacred journey. And that is what the Mishkan stands for.

That’s useful to think about as we stand this week, at Shabbat Nachamu, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple—the structure that evolved from that Mishkan in the Desert. Because maybe we’re standing at the end of our sacred space, at the end of our world. Or maybe sacred space is too simple of an idea. Maybe we’re just ending a chapter in the story—and the next leg of the journey has just begun. It’s up to us to find God in the next place. 

Abe Mezrich is the author of The House at the Center of the World,” a book of meditations on Biblical ideas of sacred space from Ben Yehuda Press.

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