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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

How to Encounter God? Build a House.

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 19, 2010)
Topics: God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot, Sefer Shemot, Terumah, Torah

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Parshat Terumah begins the second half of the book of Shemot, and from here on in the book of Shemot has one focus: the building of the mishkan:“And they shall make me a Sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). The mikdash, the sanctuary, the sanctified space, was also a mishkan, the dwelling place of God. It was the structure that, when built, would bring God’s presence into the midst of the Children of Israel.

If we wish for God to dwell in our midst, we must build a house. While God can be experienced in nature, our ongoing experience of God’s presence will be in a house. Our Rabbis expressed this beautifully:

R. Eleazar also said, What is meant by the verse, “And many people shall go and say: ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Yaakov” (Isa. 2:3) the God of Yaakov, but not the God of Avraham and Yitzchak? Rather, not like Avraham, in connection with whom ‘mountain’ is written, as it is said, “As it is said to this day, ‘In the mountain where the Lord is seen.'” (Breishit 22:14). Nor like Yitzchak, in connection with whom ‘field’ is written, as it is said, “And Yitzchak when out to meditate in the field at eventide.” (Breishit 24:63). But like Yaakov, who called Him ‘home’, as it is said, “And he called the name of that place Beth-el [The house of God]”(Breishit 28:19).[Pesachim 88a]

Not like Avraham, who encountered God on a mountain, or like Yitzchak, who encountered God in the field, but like Yaakov who understood that God is to be encountered in a house, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven” (Breishit 28:17). Why? What is the importance of a house?

First, a house must be constructed; ve’asu, “and they shall make.” It requires sustained effort and labor. To quote Teddy Roosevelt: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” Only when we dedicate ourselves – when we truly put our whole selves into something – does it become a thing of lasting and enduring value. When God’s presence departed from Mt. Sinai, its sanctity evaporated; when the Temple in which we invested our time and labor to build was destroyed, the sanctity of its space endured (Megilah 28a). And such labor, labor dedicated to a holy end, is itself holy labor. When we work to achieve our ideals, when we work to reach God, we sanctify our work, we sanctify every day, every moment.

But we must be careful. For what do we create with our labor? Do we create a House of God, or do we create – God forbid – a substitute for God, a Golden Calf? What is the difference between the Mishkan and the Golden Calf? A house has walls, boundaries, which delimit and structure the space inside. The Calf is not the empty space, it is the thing itself.

When we project only ourselves into the world, we make a Golden Calf. When we project our image of the other into the world, we make a Golden Calf. When we labor not to make a thing but instead to structure a space, we allow the other to enter, we allow true encounter to occur. When we strive to encounter God in our prayer, in our learning, and in our religious striving, how much are we projecting ourselves onto God, and how much are we making space to allow God in? To have God in our midst requires not only sustained effort, it requires tzimtzum, it requires pulling ourselves in, nullifying our ego, to allow God to enter, to allow us to encounter that which is truly outside of ourselves, the ultimate Other.

What is true in our relationship with God is true in our relationships with the other people in our lives. As any teacher knows after having posed a question to the class, it is only by suffering through those few moments of uneasy silence that finally the student emerges from her shell, and true connection and true learning occurs. As any parent knows, it is when we stop talking and start listening that we really hear our children, we really connect with them and they with us. Only when we stop our efforts, stop our talking, stop our projecting of ourselves, only when we open a space, does the other enter. In such a space, God is met. In such a space, the other is met.

In each of our lives we must begin with ve’asu, “and they shall make.” We must find an ideal and dedicate ourselves to it. We must throw ourselves into this labor, for only labor to which we dedicate ourselves will be meaningful, will be holy. We must never waver from striving to achieve our ideals and our vision, for in this way will we sanctify every act, every moment.

However, we must be very careful. We must not become so enamored with our work that it becomes the thing itself, that it become the thing that we worship, that it becomes our Golden Calf. We must always remember that there are others in our lives, that there is God in our lives.

We each must thus also work to build a mishkan, to bring God in, to bring others in. We must work to create space, the space in which true encounters and true relationships occur. Even in our religious activities, we must pull back so that we can encounter God. And in all our activities and pursuits, we must learn to pull back so that we can encounter the other – our spouse, our children, our friends; a coworker, a student, a stranger.

Finally, in our relationship with others, we must strive to build a space that is a house, that has walls and boundaries. Such a space is protected, is a safe space, a space of warmth and intimacy, a space the builds nurturing relationships, relationships of security and protection. And such a space has boundaries and limits, for to love is also to instruct and guide, to set limits on appropriate and acceptable behavior. Such a space is a house – loving and nurturing, guiding and empowering.

Our Rabbis, in Shabbat 118b, tell us that it is the same Yaakov who understood the secret of the house that was also blessed with a nachala be’li maytzarim – an inheritance without bounds:

R. Johanan said in R. Jose’s name: He who delights in the Sabbath is given an inheritance without limits, for it is written, “… and I will feed thee with the heritage of Yaakov thy father,” (Isa. 55:14). Not like Avraham, of whom it is written, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it,” (Breishit 13:17) nor like Yitzchak of whom it is written, “For unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands,” (Breishit 26:3) but like Yaakov, of whom it is written, “And thou shalt burst forth to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south” (Breishit 28:14).

Building a house with walls and bounds, leads ultimately to the blessing of an inheritance without bounds. We must first create a home that nurtures and empowers those whom we care about, a home that imbues them with our faith in them. When we have done so, then these dear people – our children, our students, anyone for whom we build our houses- having benefited from this space and these walls, will know no limits, and will be able to burst forth and fly in the world. When we have created this space with walls, this house, we will have given them an inheritance that knows no bounds.