A place for God, God is the Place

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By Rabbi Evan Krame

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, Exodus 25:1 – 27:19.

I  made room for God in the dining room. No, I didn’t buy an extra seat for the table. All I had to do was invoke God’s presence at my family’s meals.

Judaism directs us into relationship with our invisible God. It isn’t easy for humans to form a bond with an unseen deity, but it is the task we are given.

In Torah, God instructed Moses that the people should make a sanctuary so that God may dwell among them. At first glance, it might seem that God wanted a place to rest.

Since we know that building the sanctuary was not to fulfill God’s needs, it must have been for our benefit, not God’s. Humans crave a geographic spot to approach God. A house for God helped the people connect to their invisible Deity. A structure like the mikdash (sanctuary) gave the people a place to directly access God.

There is a long tradition that the Hebrew word for place, makom, is one of the many names for God.

After centuries of slavery, the Hebrews felt distanced from God. Ten plagues, the parting of the sea and the revelation at Sinai were not sufficient. They needed more, a mishkan where they could be in contact with God.

The mishkan was replaced by a stone and cedar palace, the Temple. Destroyed once, they persisted in feeling the need for a makom, a home in which God would dwell, so they rebuilt, only to have it destroyed again. Where was God to be encountered then? Ezekiel said that the indwelling presence of God, the Shekhinah, went into exile. Like an unrequited lover, Shekhinah wanders, resting in no one place.

After the destruction of the second Temple, the rabbis reimagined where God would reside. They moved the focus of Jewish ritual from the public to the private realm. The altar of the Temple was replaced by the dining room table. There, the ancient animal offerings were replaced by loaves of bread. For today’s Jews, the most impactful Jewish experiences may be occurring at that table, whether it is a Shabbat dinner or Passover seder.

Judaism of the 21st century is both a radical departure from and an echo of the past. Through the crucible of a pandemic, Judaism has adapted in a variety of ways. As public worship spaces closed over the past two years, lifecycle events shifted to backyards and living rooms. Synagogue communities reassembled outdoors, in tents or on hiking trails in local parks. In nature, they could experience the glories of warm sun or the threat of rain. Much of Judaism moved to the small screen. Some progressive Jews substituted Shabbat suits for cozy pajamas, watching services on YouTube while sipping coffee. Online learning expanded across the spectrum of Jewish education.

While in-person attendance has declined, the demands on clergy have grown. The existential challenges of our times have left many people psychologically harmed and spiritually drained, and turning to rabbis and cantors for support. Rabbis responded with great compassion.

In addition to pastoral care, many rabbis were tech challenged. No rabbinic program taught us how to operate a Zoom room or which video equipment to purchase. Clergy got more creative in teaching, leading services and sustaining community at a distance. In my community, we offered a meal delivered to your doorstep on a Friday night to be enjoyed after sharing services on Zoom.

Ultimately, I predict that God will best be found not in any building or room of any house. Rather, our connection with God will be right inside each of us, where God has always been. Where does God dwell, asked the Chasidic master the Kotzker Rebbe? Anywhere we let God in.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame is rabbi of The Jewish Studio.

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