By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tochan
(Then have them make for me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them.)
My daughter, Emma, recently married her high school sweetheart, Tyler, in an intimate outdoor ceremony at a local winery. I was honored to be asked to officiate. As we stood under the chuppah surrounded by the love of family and friends, listening to them speak their self-written vows to each other, I felt the spirit of the Divine fill the space.
As I looked at my child, I saw snippets of her life flash in front of me: looking into each other’s eyes right after her birth, holding her for the first time, graduations, all the fun we had driving up and down California to and from water polo tournaments, and especially all those moments she made me so proud by displaying kindness and compassion to other creatures: human and animal. Every day with her is a miracle and a testament to the presence of God.
Just as God needs us in order to bring children into this world and raise them to adulthood, we call on God’s loving presence to help us be the best parents we can be, and to partner with us in raising them to become productive and loving people. We invite the Shechinah (i.e., the tangible aspect of God where connection is most perceivable) not only into our own lives but into our children’s lives as well.
We recently completed our annual reading of the Book of Exodus. The final parshiot (portions) include instructions on the portable Tabernacle (“Mishkan”) the Israelites were to build as a sanctuary to God. This construction manual provides details regarding the décor for interior and exterior of the structure as well the specifics of the priestly clothing that is to be worn. We are told that when the Tabernacle was completed, the spirit of God rested within its interior. During the day, a cloud hovered overhead; at night, a fire. Having recently experienced the fiasco of the Golden Calf, perhaps God realized that in order for the Israelites not to lose their faith in God, they needed a constant visible manifestation of the presence of the Divine.
Our contemporary synagogue sanctuaries serve a similar function. They range from the moderately ornate to the excessive, all to remind us of the existence of God. But where does God really dwell?
Is the synagogue sanctuary the actual home of God? If so, is it still sacred when it is empty? What about the Aron Ha-Kodesh (the Holy Ark) that houses the Torah, the most sacred object in Judaism? Is the scroll — that which contains our history and God’s mitzvot — actually where God resides?
The true spirit of God lies in LIVING the words of the Torah, in living sacred lives. We may feel uplifted by attending a worship service and listening to words of Torah in sung or spoken form, but what really matters is what we do with these words when we leave the sanctuary. Prayer should be an inspiration to us to pay love forward — in all its manifestations. The presence of God lies not necessarily in a specific space designated for worship; it may be expressed in the actions we take that show compassion, caring, humanity, and gratitude. The Divine exists where there is love for others, which may be felt anywhere. We just have to open our hearts.