This week, synagogues around the world will read Exodus 25:1 – 27:19, Parashat Teruma, a reading which describes how and where to find God. Speaking with Moses, God says “Let them (the Israelites) make me a sacred place that I may dwell among them”.
This year, I have the privilege to reading these words, and the entire Book of Exodus, with a wise and wonderful teacher – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. It’s a privilege we all have by virtue of the recent publication of the second volume of Covenant & Conversation, a collection of Rabbi Sacks’ reflections on the Torah, organized around the weekly readings of the synagogue service.
Like its predecessor, a volume on Genesis, Volume Two combines accessibility with profundity, passion with gentleness, and intellectual richness with spiritual depth. One need not always agree with the author’s conclusions, but I cannot imagine a reader who will not be enriched by his work.
In reflecting on this week’s reading, Rabbi Sacks notes what generations of commentators have observed — the striking phrase which acknowledges that having built a sacred sanctuary for God, God will dwell not in it, but “among them” – the people who built it. Buildings and other concrete manifestations may help us to find our paths to God, but they are not where God is found, at least not according to the God of Exodus.
So where does reside? According to these verses of Exodus, god lives where our hearts open to God’s presence – where we willingly let God in. It is we, not God, who have the power to make it happen and that power lies in freely choosing to make it happen. By definition, it can never be coerced. That is why the materials offered for the building must be, as the Torah says, “offerings of the heart of those who give them”.
As Rabbi Sacks observes,
“It was thus not accidental, but of the essence, that the first house of God – small, fragile, portable; the opposite of the Temple – was built through free, uncoerced, voluntary contributions. For God lives not in houses of wood and stone, but in the minds and souls of free human beings. [God] is to be found not in monumental architecture, but in the willing heart.”
In a world filled with so many forms of religious coercion, a world in which the dignity of difference (itself the title of a previous work by Rabbi Sacks) is so often disregarded, these are words which demand our attention – not simply this week, but each and every day.