This week we reach the peak of the book of Exodus, centering on the instruction “and they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” This refers to the Tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary constructed while the Jews were in the desert. Later this took the form of the Temple which stood in Jerusalem and played a crucial role in Jewish life. Indeed the majority of the Torah’s commandments are dependent on its existence.
Today our shuls around the world mirror the components of the Temple, with a reminder of the eternal flame situated above the ark. A sanctuary is commonly regarded as a holy place, a man-made structure which somehow allows us to connect more to G-d. The way we dress, the way we act while inside the building, is different. But how does this work? Is it because the place is designated for prayer and worship? Is there something more to it? What is the nature and function of a sanctuary?
We begin with the Tabernacle which serves as the model for the later Temples, and here there appears to be conflicting views. The Ramban (Nachmonides) writes: “this sanctuary served as a place for the divine presence to reside; more specifically within the Ark of the Covenant… the hidden glory which descended on Mount Sinai was then revealed, as the verse states [Exodus 40;35]- and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan…”
But Maimonides appears to have a different view of its function. In his introduction to the Temple laws he writes “It is a positive commandment to construct a House for God, prepared for sacrifices to be offered within. We [must] celebrate there, three times a year, as [Exodus 25:8] states: “And you shall make Me a sanctuary…” According to him, the main focus is to provide a setting for offerings and for the festivals- rather than a residing place for the divine presence.
Later philosophical works attempt to uncover the point of divergence behind these two perspectives, offering the following analogy: Let’s suppose one thinks about something, trying to capture an idea- grasp it, and analyze it. The mind is the set stage for the images and thoughts to enter. But if one wants to then express that idea on paper, the brain must signal the hand, and fingers to write.
Comparing the way an idea relates to the brain and to the hand, the thought “enters” and illuminates the brain. Not so with the hand. While it is specifically the hand, not the foot or any other organ, that is most fit to write, the thought does not penetrate the fingers in the same way as the mind. The hand simply serves as a means transmits the idea.
Plugging this back in to our analogue, we find two possible ways to understand the system of a sanctuary. Was it more like a brain wherein G-d’s presence entered into the physical structure? Or was it more like a hand in which it did not “enter” the walls of the sanctuary, but whereby the sanctuary served as a transmitter to the Jewish people? Maimonides seems to hold the latter view, Nachmonides the former:
Perhaps according to Maimonides, it is difficult to say that the divine presence resided within the sanctuary itself- for G-d cannot be restricted to a particular place. Rather the sanctuary was a fit place to encounter the divine (like having good cell phone reception in a certain area.)[This is similar to the notion of prophecy, about which it states that “prophecy occurs in the land of Israel.” This statement does not mean that the physical land itself is unique but rather that the environment is conducive to a certain state of mind, a perspective unattainable in other areas.]
To be fair, one does not have to say that the above views are contradictory. One author is writing a book of law; the other focuses on the more esoteric explanations of the biblical verses. Thus, they may agree that the Temple served both functions but focus on different aspects. Whatever the case, a more in depth analysis is needed.
Though we no longer have a central sanctuary, there is still a broader application of the Torah’s command, “make me a sanctuary…” as it relates, not only to synagogues as we know them, but to every individual. Good thoughts come in a positive environment. So, one must create a personal space where they are most comfortable, in their home, or office, for good thoughts to enter. This may entail placing Jewish books, a charity box, a nice desk, etc., to designate that area as a space to reflect, to pray, temporarily removed from the pressures and pace of the world. This is one construction of a personal miniature sanctuary.