Holiness Does Not Depend on Place

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The Israelites' experiences of wandering the desert with the Mishkan on their shoulders shows us where God is — among us.

When we join them this week, the Israelites have seen the sea part at God’s command and they have walked across on dry land. They have stood at the mountain and heard the divine voice ring out the words of the Ten Commandments while lightning flashed and thunder rolled around them. They have experienced God in a profound and unforgettable way.
 
Now they must leave the sites of these miracles — the sea and the mountain — and venture away into the wilderness, toward a promised land that they have never seen and cannot imagine. We can understand why they might be reluctant to part from the places that seem to have such a connection with God. 
 
So God tries to ease their difficulty, to assuage their fears of walking away from the places that the Israelites see as holy. In this week’s Torah reading, God asks them to build an enclosure in which they can experience the divine, a sanctuary, a Mishkan. But unlike the Sea of Reeds or Mount Sinai, this sanctuary is portable. The Israelites can pack it up and bring it with them as they travel toward the unknown. They can take God with them.
 
For God, this is a compromise. Ultimately, God wants the Israelites to understand that the divine presence is not limited in space. “The whole earth is full of God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).
 
But at that moment, they are still deeply attached to material signifiers of God’s presence, to holy places and holy objects. So God compromises by giving them a holy place that is portable, hoping that in time, their attachment to particular places will give way to the more sophisticated understanding that God inhabits every place.
 
God signals this intent in the most-quoted verse in this week’s reading: “Let them make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The sanctuary will not be God’s house, since nothing can contain God. Instead, the sanctuary will be a symbol of God’s presence among the people. The medieval commentator Rashi interprets the verse this way: “Let them make in My Name an abode of holiness.”
 
God’s compromise is effective. By building and carrying with them the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, the Israelites are able to leave the sites of their peak experiences without losing their sense of God’s presence. But there is a price. The Israelites retain the sense that certain places, certain structures and certain objects are holy in and of themselves. Rather than learning that by invoking God’s presence they can make any place holy, the Israelites continually yearn for a return to the holy places and holy experiences of their past.
 
That yearning remains with us to this day, and nowhere is it felt more sharply than in this land of Israel. We hope that by standing in the places where our ancestors stood, by touching the stones they touched, walking in the paths they traveled and seeing the sky they saw, we can connect ourselves to holiness.
 
So we, too, need the lesson of this week’s Torah reading: Holiness does not depend on place. God’s presence fills the universe. When we act to create an abode of holiness in God’s name — filling a place with righteousness and justice — we can experience God’s presence. This ancient land is filled with the echoes of holiness. But it only becomes holy today if we make it so.
 
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. He is currently on sabbatical in Israel. Email him at: [email protected]

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