One of the quirky aspects of the text of the Torah is how much parchment is dedicated to a description of the ancient Tabernacle. A portable structure that is to be built and carried around by the Israelites, the Tabernacle is described in rich detail twice. The first description is the plans—God telling Moses what to build—and the second description is the actual building.
The Tabernacle had multiple functions, primary of which was the place where the ancient sacrificial rituals took place. This was the spiritual center of the community, and although our specific rites may be different now, we can understand the concepts of holy place.
This is why another name for the Tabernacle is the Mikdash—the sanctuary—a place of holiness. God says at the beginning of the first description of the Tabernacle, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
We continue to use the term sanctuary in our contemporary spiritual life as the name for the room wherein we conduct our religious services. And while the forms of prayer are different, our contemporary sanctuaries maintain the form and elements of that ancient sanctuary. Just as the sanctuary as described in the Torah had an ark to hold the tablets, so too do we have an ark to hold the Torah scrolls (that are dressed in a manner that emulates the dress of the ancient priests). Just as there was a lamp perpetually lit in the Torah’s sanctuary, so too do we have ner tamid—an eternal light—in our sanctuaries.
And a sanctuary is still seen as holy space. We do not need a sanctuary to conduct a religious service, but a space dedicated to prayer and ritual serves as a powerful force in maintaining a community.
Yet as a holy space, sanctuary means more than just a place for prayer and ritual. It has come to mean a place that we live out our highest ideals and spiritual values of peace and justice, lovingkindness and compassion. And that is at the heart of the Sanctuary movement, the movement for faith communities and houses of worship to open up their doors to those who need a safe haven. Sanctuary has come to mean a place of protection.
In these times, levels of fear and uncertainty among immigrant populations have grown high. In response, faith communities are once again revisiting the idea of sanctuary, and how we can use not only our sacred values but our sacred spaces for acts of social justice and tikkun olam. I recently participated in a webinar on sanctuary through T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. I have been in contact with local immigrant organizations. I have talked with my colleagues. And I have read a lot on the issues, concerns, and possibilities of participating in a sanctuary action.
My primary takeaway from the learning I have been doing is that sanctuary can mean many different things, and there are different ways a faith community can be involved, depending on their capacity. And partnerships, with other faith communities, with immigrant rights organizations, are key. I look forward to exploring this with my own congregation in the coming weeks.
And it is a fitting topic indeed in these coming weeks as we draw closer to Passover, when we tell our own story of liberation, the biblical story of leaving Egyptian bondage in which our spiritual ancestors were able to come out from under the shadow of oppression. It has such become such an important story to connect to our own contemporary history as immigrants and refugees, and to connect to the immigrant and refugee stories of many other populations. Our own mythic and actual history of liberation and migration, of leaving one place in hope of a better life in another, compels us to engage with this issue.
The dual description of the Tabernacle, the Mikdash, has the effect of teaching us the importance of planning and preparation. In order to build it right, the biblical artisans needed to have a clear understanding and picture of what they were expected to build. So too must we be engaged in planning and preparation. We do not know what the future brings, we do not know if we will need to create a sanctuary. But we must plan and prepare, in case we do.
“Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” says God in the Torah. And “let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” says the immigrant today.