“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” -Winston Churchill
Parshat Terumah contains the commandment to build the mishkan: “They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” How does the mishkan – a physical structure – inspire closeness and connection to God? How is this achievable today?
The commentaries debate whether the mishkan was an ideal or a necessary accommodation. The second half of Shemot is dedicated mostly to the description of the mishkan, interrupted in the middle by the narrative of the sin of the golden calf. The midrash Sifre sees a direct connection and explains that the gold in the mishkan attones for the gold used to make the golden calf. Rashi similarly teaches that there is no chronological order in the Torah and the command to build the mishkan actually took place after the sin of the golden calf, as atonement and tikun. The Ramban however, sees deep relevance in the placement of the command to build mishkan after the revelation at Sinai: “The glory of God that dwelt on Mount Sinai, hiddenly dwells upon the mishkan.” The mishkan and later the mikdash was a center where people could go to feel God’s presence. Today, this applies to a Beit Knesset or Beit Midrash called by the Sages, a “mini-mikdash.”
Yet, there is another dimension to the purpose of the mishkan: so that God will “dwell among them” – the people. Cassuto writes that the ultimate purpose of the mishkan was for the people to feel that God was in their midst. The building itself was not the goal, but rather how it inspired the people within. This idea is also expressed in Talmud Berakhot when it teaches that a person should enter two doorways in a synagogue before praying. This provides an opportunity to be mindful about entering a place of prayer, a “mini-mikdash.”
The movement through the doors, and the experience within, can hopefully inspire us to move closer and feel more connected to God and community. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson