One year later: reentering our sacred spaces

By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Parashat Vayakhel-Pikudei

This week, as we mark one year since many of our shuls, schools and community centers first shut their doors as the COVID-19 crisis began to escalate in the United States, it’s hard not to shake your head in disbelief at the terror of those early days of the pandemic. I remember how quickly panic set in, as we contemplated not just the danger of the virus, but also the toll it would take on our Jewish institutions. Doomsday prognostications soon followed. Prominent Jewish leaders predicted a future of forced closures and mergers. And while, for some, these painful predictions have come true — there have been job losses and budget cuts — our Jewish institutional landscape here in Dallas remains largely unchanged. 

We had reason to be fearful for the safety and well-being of our loved ones, and, tragically, those fears were well founded. But I count myself among the many Jewish professionals whose anxiety about the future has been transformed into excitement and anticipation at the opportunities ahead of us — opportunities to evolve and grow, to embrace new ways of thinking and acting Jewishly and, ironically, to create a community that is more engaged and more connected than it was before this crisis began. 

That irony lies at the heart of this week’s parashah, Vayakhel-Pikudei, the Torah’s second extended discourse on building sacred space at the end of the Book of Exodus. Two weeks ago, we were handed the blueprints for the Tabernacle. This week we bring the abstract into reality as, piece by piece, God’s dwelling place on earth is assembled. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel, we are commanded to construct not sacred space, but sacred time. God reminds us of our obligation to observe Shabbat by setting aside the seventh day as a day without melacha, without labor. 

Our rabbis ingeniously defined melacha as the very same actions necessary to build the Tabernacle. To be sure, these 39 categories of prohibited labor are also a kind of temporal blueprint. But what’s so brilliant about that interpretation is that it sets up an incredibly powerful and insightful paradox. After all, this is no ordinary work. To the contrary, the building of the Tabernacle is an extraordinary effort to build the structure that will serve as the most hallowed of places in the Israelite camp. But while the description of the tabernacle is filled with the presence of the finest of materials, Shabbat is made sacred by what is absent and what fills that absence — family, community, study and prayer. 

Why go to all that trouble to construct this gleaming physical structure, if what is truly holy is time, not space? In the previous parashah, we are given the answer. Because, we humans need our sacred cows (or calves). By commanding us to build the Tabernacle, God insured that the physical aspect of worship would be an object of true divinity, not idolatry.

As we anxiously anticipate the return to our own sacred spaces, let’s take some time to ask ourselves how many sacred cows we found ways to live without over these past 12 months. And while there can be no doubt that Jewish communities need sacred gathering places, it’s worth noting that the thing we were so afraid of — losing our ability to be physically present — turned into an unexpected lesson in what holiness can emerge from being spatially absent, but spiritually present for each other, and for God, in ways we could never have imagined. 

Rabbi Adam Roffman has served Congregation Shearith Israel since 2013. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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