What does it take to create a sacred space?


It was either a brilliant editorial decision or just a wonderful coincidence that this issue of Jewish Rhode Island, dedicated to Home and Garden, coincides with the Torah portion of Tetzaveh.

Tetzaveh, in the Book of Exodus, is one of five portions that focus on the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that accompanied the Hebrew people in their wanderings in the wilderness between Sinai and the Promised Land.

We usually associate the Book of Exodus with stories of redemption, peoplehood and wandering in the desert. So, it might come as a surprise that almost half of the book is dedicated to architectural and design plans, resource acquisition, choosing a contractor, descriptions of furniture and decorative flourishes, and even a deferred maintenance plan!

Tetzaveh focuses on interior design and it details the furnishings that are to go inside the mishkan.  It also provides instructions for lighting the menorah, descriptions of the ritual garb for Aaron and the other kohanim, or priests, details about their consecration and investiture, and instructions for the offering of incense.

A primary lesson of this Torah portion is the focus on what it takes to make a place sacred.  Certainly, careful design and beautifully crafted objects were important.  But we learn that it was not enough to just build a dwelling place for God and call it a holy space.

To make it a worthy place, a sacred space, it had to be a place of regular gathering and worship. A place of light (menorah) and sacred service (offering of incense).

Similarly, in our own time, if we want to regard a place as sacred, we must engage in practice to make and keep it a place where the Divine Spirit, kedushah, can be experienced.

Over the years, I have had many conversations with people about the challenges of finding  sacred space. Some people find great inspiration in the sanctuary of their synagogue or temple. Others find their spiritual home outside, in nature.  And some people describe the feeling of looking into the eyes of another as being in sacred space and time.

What does it take to feel the spirit of the Divine dwelling in a place?  Why is it often hard to feel God’s presence in places constructed as “sanctuaries”?  Tetzaveh hints at some possible answers to these questions.  Most of the commandments regarding the construction of the mishkan are given in the simple imperative (you shall ...) without any additional pronoun. But in Tetzaveh, three imperatives are preceded by the second person singular pronoun.  Atah Tetzaveh. Atah takriv. Atah tedaber. (You, you yourself shall command. You, you yourself shall bring close. You, you yourself shall speak.)

What might we learn from this subtle grammatical change? Perhaps we can learn that there is no such thing as proxy when it comes to bringing God’s presence into a space, even if that space is the most beautifully, divinely-designed space ever created. Unless each of us brings our pure oil to sustain perpetual light; each of us brings others near, to share in the service; and each of us uses our voice to add to the sanctity of the place and its people, there is no mishkan, there is no sacred space.

Like prayer, meditation, teshuvah practice and other self-improvement work, we can’t do it just once (although doing it once reminds us that it is possible.) These activities are called spiritual practice for a reason! We have to keep doing them again and again, when we feel like it and when we do not.

Practice certainly does not make perfect. But practice makes possible the possibility that we might experience the presence of All That Is Holy dwelling among and within us.

RABBI ALAN FLAM, now retired, spent his rabbinical career at Brown University. He is the founder and organizer of Soulful Shabbat, a Saturday morning service that meets monthly at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence. He can be reached at alan.flam@gmail.com.