Sign In Forgot Password

Where Does God Actually Live  #767

02/24/2023 04:11:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Terumah (Gifts): 

"And let them build Me a sanctuary that I can dwell among them.”           (Exodus 25:8).

Where Does God Actually Live?

Recently, I was thinking about the most beautiful synagogues I have prayed in.

I have toured and prayed at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. I’ve toured glorious sanctuaries in Venice and in Rome.

Some of you have shared your feelings of awe, having visited magnificent places of worship in Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam. But those are not the synagogues I cherish the most.

Rather, I recall the small, makeshift synagogue we assembled in the ballroom of the Fort McMurray Sheraton Hotel where Patte and I were married.

Friends crafted a holy ark shaped from an armoire we purchased from a local furniture store. We flew in a Torah and imported 300 kosher meals from the nearest city.

I remember the year that the building of our dwindling synagogue was sold to Montreal’s Armenian community; that year for the High Holidays, we rented a small, intimate space in an industrial building.

When visiting Israel, I still attend a small synagogue in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter, where—while children shout and play in the alleyways—about 20 Kurdish Jews gather each evening to pray.

I recall the how warmly I was greeted as I first entered that small synagogue . And I remember the sincerity of a public blessing—a misheberach—uttered on one Shabbat morning by the prayer leader.

“Dear God. Please bless Moshe this coming Monday as he appears before the Israel Tax Authority. Please accompany him and help the government see that Moshe is a good man—and any mistakes on his taxes were not on purpose.”

I love the intimacy of those small congregations—where kindness, fellowship and godliness inspire the community more than any collection of stained glass, padded pews or crystal chandeliers.

So, which type of synagogue has inspired you?  More importantly, what type of synagogue, or place of assembly, do you think God wants us to build? 

The answer is contained in this week’s Torah portion.

During the past two weeks, the Torah has been concerned about laws, rules, and regulations. Two weeks ago, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Last week, we were introduced to an additional 53 commandments.

But this week, the Torah occupies itself with a very practical issue. ”How and where do we house the Ten Commandments?” And the Torah provides the answer.

God asks the Israelites to bring gifts to a central location, “from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25:2)

And the people comply. They bring gold, silver, copper, along with blue, purple and crimson yarns, linen, goat’s hair, ram and dolphin skin, wood and precious stones.

But a question emerges: How did the Israelites, just months after their liberation, acquire these assets?

The Torah explains that the Egyptians provided the Israelites with these materials as they departed. Some Egyptians were profoundly moved by the plagues they had endured. Others saw this as compensation for years of unpaid toil.

There are many other theories, but says the Torah: “And God had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request.” (Exodus 12:36)

And since these gifts were acquired in the aftermath of God’s Passover miracles, an ethical question remains, “How should these materials be utilized?”

God provides direction in this week’s Torah portion. “And let them build Me a sanctuary that I can dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

God is not requesting a grand synagogue or cathedral to be built pointing skyward.  Rather, this week’s Torah portion makes an important statement: God lives on earth among us.

One of my rabbinical teachers, Dr. Diane Sharon, noted that God was not requesting a Cadillac, but rather an RV.

The divine request inspires us to consider where God truly lives. An important Jewish teaching holds that God does not exist in a comfortable, heavenly abode, but rather in the “wilderness” among us.

God is found when we help someone in need.

God is found when we take the time to listen with a full heart to the problems and concerns of a family member or friend.

God is found when we put down our cell phones at the dinner table, or otherwise “live in the moment.”

God is found within the small things we do.

I recall once visiting a small community in the Northwest Territories—population 2,700—consisting mostly of trappers, loggers, and First Nations.

At the center of town stood a massive cathedral. It was beautiful and lavish with a steeple reaching to the heavens.

It occurred to me that I’ve never seen a synagogue with a steeple. Rather our religion encourages us to focus on ground level—with God at our side.

That is what a synagogue is. In Hebrew we call it a Beit Knesset—literally, a house of assembly. Judaism defines the holiness of its sanctuaries not by its external trappings, but rather in the way humans interact within.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that God dwells among us rather than above us. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I can dwell among them.”

As for Moshe, I later learned that the Israel Tax Authority was kinder than expected. He paid a small fine and returned to his community relieved. 

Did God speak to the Israel Tax Authority? I can’t really say. But I do believe that on that day, Moshe carried with him the love of his community, and its blessings, and that in his mind, God walked with him.

This week’s Torah portion inspires us to recall the most meaningful and spiritual places where we’ve felt God’s presence.

I am relatively certain that this did not occur under the roof of an opulent synagogue, but rather in a place with friends, family, and a welcoming community.

Let us, therefore, build sacred communities where God wishes to dwell—not occasionally within the opulence of sanctuaries pointing toward the heavens—but within the kindness of our deeds here on earth—every single day.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784