Last year, I had the delightful task of teaching fourth graders at a Hebrew school. At 4pm on a Tuesday, that's not always the most fun time to try and engage children who've already spent half the day seated in desks, so I often invited them to make art projects at the table while I told stories of ancient Israel, Jewish sages, or contemporary holidays. I learned pretty early on that with the proliferation of young adult fantasy and dystopian fiction out there, these kids loved to hear about temples. One of them displayed a deep knowledge of Japanese, Greek and Roman temple architecture - but had never actually heard of any Jewish temple in our history.
This isn't really surprising considering the state of Judaism today... While our ancestors might have clung with hope to the tales of bygone eras and glory days, today's approach is often more about improving society rather than a mythical golden building descending out of the sky. For most of society, temples are ancient strongholds of magic, places for Indiana Jones and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, and today we have synagogues and JCCs instead.
That’s not always the case, though. At the arts-and-music experiment in intentional living and community, known as Burning Man, held yearly in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, temple building is an art, as well as a science, one that some spend hours building in the blazing desert sun. Many who engage in festival culture, like myself, have the temples that we carry with us from festival to festival; packed up in a stack of plastic bins and a bunch of tarps and poles; not unlike the ancient Israelites’ pile of golden sacred furniture with sturdy poles attached for portability.
The ancient Israelites were champion temple builders, one we can learn a lot from in the most popular book club of all time, the Bible, and learn what the book of Exodus has to tell us about the original portable Temple of the Israelites, those guys who came before the Jews as we know it today.
The book of Exodus isn’t the trippy stories of Genesis with Adam and Eve; or Noah and his animal crew. But arguably it may have even more psychedelic elements, though for our purposes here we’ll call them magic realism: filled with all kinds of fantastical propositions yet set in the world not all that different from the one we know today. We open with people called the Israelites – the same people many of us as modern Jews consider our great-great-grandparents – in exile in a land called Egypt, a land some of us may have visited on discounted airline tickets. They’re enslaved, have no agency of their own, and are desperate to get out of town.
Those of us who spend one or two nights a year with our favorite members of our extended family drinking wine ceremonially know how the story goes, of ten plagues, lots of blood and fire, and an eventual magical miraculous Exodus of these Israelites from Egypt by way of a man called Moses, his brother Aaron, and a great and awesome creature who introduces Himself as “I will be what I will be” in truly Jewish fashion, the artist formally known as God. They cross a sea, head to a mountain called Sinai, and spend a lot of this entire book in a dusty wilderness not unfamiliar to those of us who head out to a similar land in Nevada each year at Burning Man.
It’s this journey of transition that runs as a theme not just through the Five Books of Moses, but through our lives as Jews, living up to our stereotypes as “wandering Jews”. One year, I returned from Burning Man exhausted to announce, “My people have already spent way too much time in the desert.” So I started to think about what we used as an antidote to all that wandering, and as it turns out, it’s right there in Exodus.
See, after the craziness of 10 Plagues and the epic drama of a Mount Sinai Revelation; the Israelites are desperate for something to call home. They’ve seen God in the face (or to be precise, the Finger, as the Egyptians called it after one of the more gnarly plagues…) and witnessed the cloud that protects God’s presence on the mountain. They know the Divine is real; and they are humans who’ve seen the Divine who are still wandering around a desert with nothing but a cloud for protection. It all gets a little intense.
So what do they do? They create some sacred space.
The first attempt is a botched one, to say the least. They fashion a great big golden calf, sing and dance and feast around it, and the Man(?) Upstairs is definitely not having it. They wanted a place for God’s body on earth but the rawness, the primal expression of drinking and feasting around a big old art installation with no intention or ritual is not okay for Moses and God.
So the text introduces us to the concept of a Tabernacle, or Mishkan, as its called in Hebrew. Literally, a dwelling place. This Mishkan is instructed to be built with very precise directions, with a fully written out architectural blueprint. This space is deliciously lush, filled with gold and copper-plated ritual objects, also known as sacred furniture; from the washing basin to the multiple altars and the most sacred space of all, the Ark of the Covenant, housed in a room called the “Holy of Holies”. It’s all made out of wooden beams with silver and copper sockets and rings and poles criss-crossing this way and that, holding up layers of lush woven fabrics made of crimson and violet and gold and hairs of goats and skins of unicorns, oh my!. Each object is fitted with the rings and poles it needs to be completely portable, so when it’s time to move on, they just hoist them over their shoulders and its good to go. It’s an opulent, pop-up space in the middle of a desert.
In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in the middle of a desert or beach or mountaintop and looked at the magical carpeted space filled with sacred objects and wondered whether what I’m witnessing at Burning Man or any other festivval are also Mishkans of some sort, a portable sacred space.
So my question let’s think a little more about what this space actually represents. Because the Book of Exodus spends a lot of time talking about it – about a third of the book, to be honest. And if we’re contrasting against a life of statelessness, of being slaves in Egypt, what does the Tabernacle represent – just as the Burn represents for us, contrasting our life of default-world dwelling in corporate America?
I want to mention another interesting component of the book of Exodus, mentioned only a few chapters before we get the Mishkan’s instructions. The Israelites are given the commandment to observe and keep the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week which is designated for rest. When it’s time to build the Tabernacle, it becomes clear that the Sabbath supercedes the Tabernacle, and all the work being done needs to stop for the day.
So it seems that the Mishkan, which is in itself a sacred space, a portal, if you will, of some sort; has its counterpart in time.
Now let’s imagine ourselves as Israelites, formerly slaves of the Egyptian Empire. With no real home to call your own and no real time that is yours to waste or scroll Instagram as you wish, you might be on the lookout for the best ways to mark your freedom once you are officially out of town. And ways to mark sacred space and sacred time might be just the thing. In fact, one of the first commandments given to the Israelites before they leave Egypt is to mark the months with time – an obvious sign of freedom.
Leaving Egypt, a place that represents a certain type of magical technology, where magicians could do a bunch of things God could do and the Pharoahs were considered a God, is a transitory moment from one stateless existence into another. But in the expansive space of the desert, there’s a scent of possibility. There are ways to craft your own sacred moments and sacred spaces; and those answers are presented with the commandments of the Sabbath, and the Tabernacle.
There are some messed up moments in between, like the Golden Calf, as humans figure it out slowly. In this Book, it seems to be that when you do something based on the Commandment of God, you’re good – when it’s a human initiative, not so much. In fact, the details of building the Temple are so precise, they take up a good third – maybe even a half – of the book; and not only are they described in long-form prose down to the measurements of the beams, but they are repeated when the actual execution happens, which is this week’s portion.
The repetition of all this detail seems to be clear that when we’re talking about building spiritual technology, like this Tabernacle-Mishkan-Sanctuary, the details are of supreme importance because we’re talking about precision here. We’re talking about a space that will literally become the Home of the Divine on this earth, and it needs to be done right.
Biblical scholars call this the Axis Mundi, a portal. The space where Divine and Human is fused into one central space, a pillar of the universe. It’s something that’s been replicated since time immemorial with temples, totems, caverns, crazy big piles of rocks, and today, piles of wood, metal and LED lights. In the Book of Exodus, it’s clear that when God says, “And they shall me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in them,” we’re talking about a transference of Divine power from the heavens – or the mountain where God lives, according to narratives like Mount Sinai’s pyrotechnic display of Divine power; to the earth, where humans hang.
When I read these texts, it’s not hard to imagine how central a space for housing Divinity was for a people who’d come from statelessness and a lack of national identity surrounded by Egyptian gods (what we might call the ‘default world’). The Israelites were looking for a space where they could assert themselves as a unique people, one where they could express and actualize their connection to the Divine in a sacred space. The institution of Shabbat – a sacred portal in time – was an important partner to the institution of the Sanctuary, a sacred portal in space; and one that traveled with them, wherever they went.
Fast forward a couple millennia later, and it’s evident nothing much has changed. Just like our ancient ancestors, we too seek spaces where we can embody our Divine consciousness in physical spaces. We design; we schlep; we build; we create; and we experience ecstatic moments of transcendence by allowing our efforts to coalesce into sacred portals of space and time through our art, our creativity and our vision.
It’s my prayer that our efforts continue to uplift us and transform the world around us, into one where we know that we have this capacity within us, everywhere we go – just as the ancient Mishkan was portable, so is our connection to the Divine. As we recreate this ancient spiritual technology; and build our own personal portals to the Divine; can we begin to consider how we embody the Divine in sacred space and sacred time? Can we allow our hearts and our bodies to become containers for the sacred; to transform our homes into temples; and our daily movements into a prayer?