In Parashat Terumah, we find the detailed instructions for the building of God’s Mishkan, God’s dwelling place in the wilderness. The long instructions begin with, “They shall make an ark of acacia wood,” and with great detail and laborious attention, the Torah lays out every detail, every single measurement, leaving absolutely no doubt in our minds about how this holy sanctuary is to be constructed.
In this portable sanctuary, B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, were to gather as a sacred community on a regular basis to worship and serve God.
I imagine that prayer and worship in those biblical days were no simple things. I don’t believe it was as easy as 1-2-3: Build the Mishkan, people show up, and everyone experiences wonderful, moving and holy prayer moments every time.
As the Israelites gathered for prayer in the Mishkan, I picture them bickering a bit. In their tight-knit community, tensions and disagreements must have followed them from their own tents into this communal sanctuary.
As we know from our own experience, it is not so easy to check our relationships at the doors of our sanctuaries. Those relationships follow us in sometimes, and sometimes make it challenging to feel spiritual at all.
Whether it is the High Holy Days or a Shabbat service, if we are a part of our community, then we know we might just run into someone at services who agitates us a bit. It is a part of being human and a part of being in community with each other.
But there is at least one prayer that can help. It’s the first prayer that we say upon entering the sanctuary: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov” (How good are your tents, O Jacob). At first glance, we may mistakenly look to physical structures — an impressive sanctuary or the newest architectural take on the 21st century American synagogue. We want to walk into the building and say, “Ooh, this is incredibly beautiful.”
But over the millennia, the commentators beg us to see this in a different way. The building may be truly beautiful and inspiring, but what is really beautiful are the people inside, they tell us. Or, this should be the case. But we know it’s not so easy. Even Mah Tovu needs a bit of twist here to help us with the challenges of being in relationship with each other.
That twist comes from Jewish mysticism.
Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist, gives us a mystical take on how we should say this profound prayer when we enter the sanctuary. He tells us that before praying, we should take on the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, the positive commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. When we enter the synagogue to pray, we have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to this mitzvah from the Book of Leviticus.
For too many of us, synagogues have become a place of contention. For some, painful memories and bad experiences can characterize what it means to walk through the doors of a synagogue.
For me, as a rabbi, this is something that keeps me up at night!
But we learn through this Lurianic teaching that it doesn’t need to be this way.
Think of it this way: Every person we meet is someone else’s child. Every child deserves the love of a parent, and there is a good chance that the person who drives you crazy may very well be, or was, loved by their parent. Or, at the least, they deserved that love.
If you have your own child, you may know that kind of love. Love your neighbor as yourself means to love the other as you are loved, or have been loved, or should have been loved.
If we each take this teaching, this commandment, to heart, then we will enter our sanctuary doors primed for positive relationships with one another.
For us, as Jews, how we enter the sanctuary is as critical as the precision that went into building the original Mishkan.
So let us build our mishkan with the human faces and accompanying personalities that make up the people in our community. This is how we make a lasting and lovely mishkan, one that will endure long after any walls have aged or crumbled. Let our offering in the mishkan be our relationships with these people and the love that emanates from us all.