In this week’s Torah portion we read
ofu,c h,bfau asen hk uagu
“Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus25:8). This beautiful passage is often quoted as the “first Jewish building campaign.” I rather see its message being one regarding sacred community. Grammatically, you would almost expect the Divine command to state “build a sanctuary so I may dwell in it;” rather, as we work together for holy purpose (i.e. creating sacred space), God’s presence dwells among us. How cool!
Now wait a minute! The generations have taught us, no matter how majestic our edifices, how lovely their adornments, it is the experiences we share that Judaism sanctifies as holy. Consider, of course, the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his towering masterpiece The Sabbath – Its Meaning for Modern Man:
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time there are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year…
…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time…
…The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.
(emphases are Heschel’s; underlining mine)
How do we jive the passage from the Torah alongside the profound understanding of Rabbi Heschel?
I’ve recently taught a few sessions on “media and technology in the history of Jewish prayer.” In doing so, I suggest that the messages, themes, and theology of Jewish tradition retain an evolving thread over our history. Yet HOW our tradition is transmitted, of course, has changed radically. In each session, I began by telling, verbally, a Chassidic story. We moved from verbal to written tradition, as I showed a Torah and scroll of Esther (also noting the art of Hebrew calligraphy). We then went from the written works to the printed; I shared a variety of prayer books and we discussed the importance of how printing (practically) democratized literacy. Finally, I demonstrated our current shift from printed material toward an emerging digital capability by projecting Mishkan T’fila on a screen from my iPad app.
Again, the lessons, values, customs of Judaism have evolved in as an ever-growing corpus; the media by which this corpus is transmitted have been transformed in nearly every generation. So too it is with the notion of “sacred space” – from the outset in Exodus, we know that sacred space is not the mixture of bricks, mortar, stone and upholstery, nor the style of parchment, scrolls, books or smart phones employ within. Ultimately, all these elements are cursory and fleeting. What remains are the texts, experiences and memories that we use them to generate. And so, God dwells among us.