Today’s sanctuary is wherever we receive the holy

The main focal point of the book of Shemot (Exodus), which we conclude this week, is the Mishkan — the traveling sanctuary for the Jewish people (later replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem). Hearing the word “sanctuary” may bring associations with peacefulness, such as finding a place of quiet refuge, listening to the soothing sounds or admiring the beauty and harmony in nature. A holy sanctuary, however, suggests something more precise, with guidelines and requirements to create the ideal channel.
The Hebrew word for “holy” connotes “separate, designated and distinct.” In order for holiness to enter our physical arena, it has to descend or be “drawn down” through selfless human action. The famous instruction came in the second year (of wandering in the wilderness): “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst.” This construction entailed specific materials (multicolored curtains, loops of blue wool, acacia planks covered in gold, red ram’s skins, silver sockets, etc.), measurements and ornaments (the Ark, the menorah, the table); only then did the Jewish people merit an exceptional elevation.
In later years, a magnificent edifice stood upon a Jerusalem hilltop, the point of contact between heaven and earth. So important was this house of worship to Jewish life that nearly two-thirds of the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah) are contingent upon its existence. Its destruction is regarded as the greatest tragedy of our history. The remaining stone wall has become as sacred site for millions of visitors. The anticipated rebuilding, throughout our daily prayers, marks the ultimate redemption — the renewal of complete unity within creation. What did this physical structure accomplish?
From Sinai to sanctuary
The main purpose of the Mishkan (dwelling) and Temple, according to Nachmanides, was to serve as a resting place for the Shechinah (the Divine presence). And the secret trigger, among the vessels, was the mysterious Ark of the Covenant, sheltered within the innermost chamber. “As it states (Exodus 24; 22), ‘I will arrange my meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the Ark cover’ … From here, the same presence which originally rested among the children of Israel at Mount Sinai would remain with them inside the sanctuary.”
The commentaries explain that in the original natural order, before the Torah, the luminous heavenly realm was disconnected from the earthly life. There was no possibility of bridging the two worlds, like a travel restriction between countries. With the grand event on Mount Sinai, the barrier was broken. The influx of holiness — where a higher reality entered our material realm — is regarded as a novelty within the system of creation. Unlike prophecy or divine insight, usually restricted to an individual’s superior capabilities, this divine manifestation was an inclusive occurrence.
Highlighting the Hebrew symbolic images of “cloud” and “glory,” Nachmanides points to the precise phraseology (and meaningful repetitions) at the end of this week’s Torah reading, illustrating the parallels between the rare revelation on Mount Sinai and the mystical level within the sanctuary: “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” Likewise, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” The only difference, he explains, was that on Mount Sinai the divine presence was open and temporary, while in the holiness pervading the sanctuary stayed and resided more covertly.
Then and now
While the temple stood, divinity was revealed. Love for mitzvot came easily. A heavy dose of holiness drifted through Jerusalem. But after the dreaded destruction, during an extensive bitter exile forcing Jewish communities to be scattered across the world, often among hostile neighbors, this spiritual ambiance has become more like a detached tale. But our current deficit, where enjoyment and passion in mitzvot has largely diminished, carries with it the opportunity for the virtue of effort, the exercise of independent will, to unveil itself.
While we no longer see a grand sanctuary, the central station of Jewish life, we still have the ability to establish our own special place, a stopping point during our daily travels, a platform to rise above the daily grind and plug into a higher perspective. Each synagogue, for instance, is termed a “miniature temple.” Then there’s our personal sanctuary. Here too, we must actively construct it. The solid foundation — the trigger for holiness to rest — is the mitzvah; “Blessed are you…who has sanctified us with His mitzvot…” That’s why, before praying, there’s a custom to drop a coin in a tzedakah box, a small gesture to set the tone for both reflection and connection. Being surrounded by a selection of holy books calms the mind.
These simple acts create the setting. The absorption and integration of holiness comes from mindfulness during that designated space and window of time, like Torah study, approached with humility and a desire to connect to sacred wisdom. Constructing our own personal sanctuary — in our house, office or wherever we designate — sanctifies a corner of our individual world. It’s an easy yet vital substitute for the sanctuary we read about and remember.

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