Where We Dwell by Beth Cohen

Posted on March 3, 2022

Board of Trustees Meeting Drash- February 2022

Beth Cohen, Trustee for New Membership

This week’s Torah Portion, P’kudei, concludes the book of Exodus. The last two chapters are a summary of the instructions regarding the details of building the tabernacle, which was the  portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them through the Wilderness.  At the risk of perhaps putting you to sleep before I even begin, I will not get into the details of the construction.   However, something did jump out at me while I read this portion. That is what I will talk about tonight.  

When the tabernacle was completed, something beautiful happened – the physical presence of G-d filled and surrounded the tabernacle.  The Torah portion describes G-d’s presence as a cloud that would hover around the tabernacle during the day; and at night, G-d’s presence would be seen in the form of fire- the tabernacle would be filled with fire. 

 Some scholars have written that the purpose of the tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai, in the center of which were stored the tablets of the 10 commandments (both the intact tablets and the ones that were broken when Moses smashed them). This tabernacle was a place in which there could be continuous communication with G-d; as the Jewish people moved away from Sinai, they needed a tangible symbol of G-d’s continuous presence in their midst. They had it.  


Another name for the tabernacle is Mishkan, which means dwelling place. Shekhinah, which comes from the same root in Hebrew, is also another name we use for G-d: Literally it means, “the One who dwells”.   


This dwelling place, this Mishkan, this tabernacle, was a place where G-d was present –spiritually and physically, in the form of cloud and fire.  It helped the Jewish people find direction, together.  


It isn’t a far stretch to take this image- this holy dwelling, a place where G-d’s presence is both felt and seen, whose physical presence serves to comfort and guide the Jewish people on their journey from Sinai – and start to think about our own tabernacle, our Mishkan, our dwelling.  The physical TST building, which is a central place to congregate, to feel a sense of belonging and community, a place to gather together spiritually, in friendship, to learn, to celebrate, to mourn and also perhaps to find G-d.  


This then got me thinking about the idea of the synagogue and what role synagogue has played in my own life.  I grew up in a synagogue in NY – literally. I went from preschool through Hebrew high school, and even did an extra (elective) post- Hebrew high school year.   I was the valedictorian of my Hebrew high school class. I was that kid!  I worked in the religious school office, when I wasn’t at a youth group event or planning one. I went to services with my family every Shabbat, I was on the board for our USY – youth group chapter- and well – Like I said, I lived in that synagogue. The building was my home – the same Rabbi who was there for my brother’s bris and my sister’s naming, stood on the bimah with all three of us at our B. Mitzvahs and performed all of our weddings. But when I returned home as an adult, with my parents, to attend a high holiday service, the religious school director wasn’t there, both the Rabbi and cantor had retired, and my friends had moved away; and although the building was still beautiful, filled with my wonderful memories, my community was no longer there; and for me G-d was no longer there.  The warm feelings of my youth remained, but the feeling of belonging did not. Neither did the spirituality I had previously felt inside those walls.  The building without the community, to which I was so personally connected, didn’t mean nearly as much.    


Then I think about membership and what it’s been like to be recruiting new members during a pandemic.   I think about how important it is to have a place to congregate, to meet each other, to learn, to pray together. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of this community before COVID. That foundation – the physical structure of our TST building – has played a fundamental role in forming our community. Having made my own connections to the clergy, the members, the teachers, the staff – in-person in the past – allowed me to maintain a connection to the community without physically being together in one space.     The warmth I felt knowing that we all were lighting those TST tealights at the same time, I still felt connected even though my family was in our own Mishkan. Then, I think about how difficult it has been both to bring in new members and to help them connect to our community without having a central place to congregate.  

Our synagogue building (with the failing HVAC system, broken gutters, and all) may not be essential for us to find G-d; it may not be the only place we find G-d.   The building is not what defines our community. But I think it is a crucial ingredient. We need that central place, a communal Mishkan, to bring us together.   It’s where we meet, build friendships, where we learn, where our children learn and grow, where we cry, where we celebrate, where we perhaps feel the presence of G-d a bit stronger and where we form community.   


As the Jewish people wandered away from Sinai, with their portable sanctuary in tow, and with G-d’s tangible presence, we have the privilege of coming back together in person, from this Covid-induced MetroWest diaspora, to our Mishkan, to build more connections, to feel perhaps closer to G-d and to build an even stronger community within the walls of our synagogue.  


And as we see the Covid numbers going down and we think about returning to our Mishkan, it raises all sorts of questions. What will it feel like to all be together in one place? To have an in-person board meeting around one table?  Will we ever be back together in the same way we once were, in the way that we were used to? What will it feel like if we remain a hybrid community, with some people coming back physically and some remaining at home? What does Mishkan mean in these current times?  


Although unrelated to this week’s Torah portion, I would be remiss, if I didn’t say anything this evening about what is going on in our world – so I will say 3 Hebrew words:

Olam Chesed Yibaneh – Together, we must build this world from love.