Sacred space?


This week’s portion, Terumah, introduces us to one of the most challenging concepts in Judaism.

“Ve’Asu’ Li’ Mikdash, Ve’Shachanti’ Be’Tocham.”

“And they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” (Shemot 25:8)

Hashem wants… what, exactly? A home? A sanctuary? The most obvious difficulty with this idea is why, and in fact, how G-d, the endless unlimited One, can or would be confined to a limited space? After all, G-d, Hashem, is everywhere. So how can G-d, the Endless One, have a physical home?

It is interesting to note that the Ramban (Nachmanides; a 12th century commentary) says that the essence of this Mishkan (Tabernacle) was to recreate the Sinai experience, wherein G-d’s presence dwelled on the mountain. (19:20).

In other words, the mitzvah to build a physical space on earth for G-d’s presence stems from the first physical place where G-d chose to ‘dwell’ on earth: Mount Sinai. And indeed, the very notion of receiving the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai raises, essentially, the same question as does the Mishkan: why did we, as a people have to go to a specific mountain in order to receive the Torah? If G-d is everywhere, what difference did it make where we were when we received the Torah?

This mitzvah forces us to confront one of the most basic themes in Judaism: the seeming need for creating sacred space. This central position in Judaism is one we are confronted with every time we go to pray in a synagogue.

In fact, the ultimate and inevitable result of this philosophy has the entire Jewish people, and one might easily argue (based on the disproportionate attention in the media) the entire world focused on the crisis brewing in the Middle East. Two groups of people completely at odds over a strip of land so small, that the name ‘Israel’ doesn’t even fit inside the country on standard globes. Why is this piece of property so important?

And of course, the essence of this struggle is very clearly not just over the land of Israel, but also over the city of Jerusalem, and specifically over a small mountain made holy because of a building, long since destroyed, which sat on top of a very special rock. Known as the Even Yetzirah, or Foundation Rock, Jewish tradition suggests that it was from this holy slab of rock, over which the Temple was built three thousand years ago that the earth was formed.

Can you imagine? The entire Middle East crisis, five wars in the last fifty years, and the majority of the world poised for what may become a global confrontation, all over who gets the deed to… a rock?

Is any space worth so much pain and suffering? Are we all mad? What lies at the root of this concept of sacred space that is apparently so essential to what Judaism stands for?

Judaism has never suggested that one comes closer to the spiritual essence of G-d by abandoning the physical world. In Judaism, the goal is not to find G-d on top of Mount Sinai; the goal is to bring G-d down below.

Can I infuse the physical world with the spiritual essence of G-d? This is the ultimate question posited to us as a people at Sinai. And this is why the Jewish people attempt to infuse the very spiritual experience of Sinai, which began with three days of separation and purification (19:10-11,15), with the very physical experience of the Golden Calf.

But they were sadly mistaken, because in the end, they were not infusing the physical with the spiritual, they were merely creating a purely physical experience alongside a purely spiritual one.

There is a beautiful Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers, which teaches that a person who interrupts his Torah study by exclaiming: “How beautiful is this tree!” literally is worthy of forfeiting his life. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that this does not mean a person should not interrupt his Torah study to wonder at the beauty of the trees. Rather, it means that if the beauty of nature and the world is an interruption of one’s Torah study, then there is something wrong with said person’s relationship with Torah. Because the beauty inherent in all of creation is not an interruption of one’s relationship with G-d, it is part of it.

All of which is why G-d’s response, according to Rashi, to the debacle of the Golden Calf was to build a Mishkan. In this Mishkan was a Holy, and a Holy of Holies. And inside the Holy of Holies, on top of the ark, were two cherubs, little golden angel-winged… idols! And these cherubs are at the epicenter of the holiest spot in Judaism. Because only in such a spiritual place can we recognize the challenge and the value of synthesizing both the physical and the spiritual into one, with the aim of bringing G-d into the world, through us.

This is the concept of sacred space. Every great idea and every worthy goal needs a focal point, and if the mission of the Jewish people on this world is to bring G-d into the world, then the challenge of infusing the physical world with spiritual beauty begins with that rock where tradition has it the world was first created, because the entire purpose of physical creation, was to allow us as human beings to be partners with G-d in creating a holy world. And the definition of holiness is seeing G-d in every physical reality, every flower and every tree, every bug and every grape.

Which is why we need a land, because only in connecting with land that is our own, can we really achieve as a people that ideal of transforming the physical world into the spiritual majesty of building a place for the endlessness of G-d in our seemingly limited physical reality.

Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His  weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at