The tabernacle

After the golden calf debacle, Moses returns from his second trip to the top of Mount Sinai with instructions to create a special place in which the people can worship God. It’s a nice compromise: a location to help people dispense of their anxiety without sullying the notion of a single unifying divinity. The people can’t have icons, but hey can have a place. Perhaps God cannot be touched or seen, but God can be experienced. Of course, this edifice needed to be portable—a tent or “tabernacle,” as it was called—because these people were on the move.

All synagogues are modern incarnations of the first tabernacle in that they are physical structures in which people focus on God. The ones on my list to visit in L.A. were often so nondescript on the outside that I took to driving past them hours, even days, before the service I plan to attend. More than once I was convinced the synagogue in question had gone out of business—the office building or warehouse it once occupied was abandoned, the Hebrew letters a forgotten remnant of its former life. Even after being reassured by phone that the place was indeed still in operation, I was never fully convinced that I had found my destination until I crossed the threshold into a sanctuary as vibrant as the exterior was dormant.

The contrast between inside and outside made me wonder if modern-day synagogues have also inherited the emotional legacy of the original tabernacle; when translated into a stone structure in Jerusalem and renamed a temple, it was destroyed—not once, but twice. In the plain facades, I sensed a reluctance to invest too much energy into a physical structure, an acceptance of impermanence, and a desire to go largely unnoticed by the city at large. Even a synagogue with a lavish exterior like the Sephardic one I visited in a ritzy neighborhood—its façade of white limestone leading to an intricately carved wood door—announced its purpose quietly: a simple metal menorah affixed to one of the blocks of stone. As I approached, I believed it was likely I would find the entrance locked, a small sign announcing the congregation had packed up and moved away.

My second Sabbath in L.A., I arrive for services just before the front doors open at 9 am. It is held at the synagogue I stared at from the dinner table with my friends the week before. In the middle of the night, a storm rolled in and I awake Sabbath morning to find the usually blue skies blanketed in grey and rain pouring down. I head towards the building under the cover of an umbrella. As I approach, I see that the entrance is crowded with people trying to stay dry under the overhang above the doors. I get closer and realize the people have camped here for the night, a dozen young men and women who are now rolling up makeshift bedding and folding tarps. A few worn out signs say “Occupy Wall Street,” though where one might do that around here is a mystery to me. I join them at the top of the steps just as one of the front doors opens and the rabbi sticks his head out to check on their progress. As they hoist their packs and sleeping rolls and descend the steps to leave, the rain dissipates and the sun emerges. It’s a trick that seems almost as remarkable as the parting of a sea.

12 thoughts on “The tabernacle

    • Merrill, I think a strong point of view makes a story more compelling in some ways. The story here is definitely shaped by me–everything I choose to include from my experiences to the particular Bible stories creates its thrust and contours and nuance. I don’t know if this means I think my version is “right,” only that it’s mine.

      • You are a great storyteller, Corinna…..that is why some of us are still here! A strong point of view IS necessary….I didn’t ever mean to say it wasn’t. I just wanted people to think about the fact that the storyteller does get to control the point of view…..your thrust, your contours, your nuances…..what great descriptors for this process of careful choosing. I say keep up the good work! Merrill

      • Each person brings their own experience to the story. What is so masterful about the biblical story is that it’s there for all of us to contend with, and that means ancient people as well as people in 2013; men, women, the poor, the marginalized, slaves, the rich and powerful, the list goes on. Because people hear it differently does not mean you cannot get to the truth. Scripture says of itself that the Holy Spirit speaks to you.

        If you were to read a passage when you were ten, you will get an entirely different message from it a few years later. Certain things jump out at you at different times. Certain things hit Merrill as she read Esther. If she read a part of it with a small group of people and then they each shared what stood out to them or what struck them or what they had questions about or wanted to know more, there would be a great variety of responses. As you discuss it with the group, and discuss what the passage might be asking you to do or be, it’s quite enriching to hear its impact on each person.

        Corinna is talking about God’s plan for the people to build the first tabernacle, a practice that has continued to this day. The Scripture says that God did not tax the people to accomplish it, or force them to do it, but that they were to take an offering to the Lord; letting whoever had a generous heart to bring it. “And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing . . .” (see Exodus 35) The continuity itself with the building of synagogues and churches today is amazing. Because it is still done by those with generous hearts and a willing spirit to worship and honor God. It’s just an unbelievable privilege to do this.

  1. Corinna,
    Your comments about the outside of the synagogue made me think back to all of the varied churches you have visited and described for us….there have been those who seemed to want to declare their glory to the lord by their outward presence….and then there were those which were quiet and unassuming…….and those that met in the warehouse. Such a variety. I have not had the opportunity to visit more than two synagogues. One was a large building in Seattle where I had been invited for a celebration for teachers, and it has been such a long time ago that I have no memory of either the inside OR the outside! The other is a small house here in Yakima. So I am not familiar with the facades of multiple synagogues so as to make a comparison. Again, I hope Aaron speaks up and comments about this. Is there some significant to this choice of having plain facades….as Corinna suggested? Merrill

    • HI Merrill,

      Interesting questions on the external facades. Naturally each community may have a thematic element that they wish to represent in the fashion of the finish, but realistically it is a lesser element of the whole..

      Two factors drive the underlying approach:

      1. A community is suppose to build a house of prayer that is at least as nice as they would finish their own home, for if not they would be diminishing the respect of their house of prayer.
      2. The concept of making a tabernacle comes with a very important Hebrew Grammatical issue. A technical translation of the Hebrew comes out like this: “Make for me a dwelling place and I will dwell in them.” For context it should have been written; “Make for me a dwelling place and I will dwell in it.” From this we understand that not only does each synagogue adequately serve us, but through the way we live, behave and think we can also be a “dwelling place” for Gd..

      For the mystics, an emphasis on the external needs does need supersede the importance of inner sanctum, ( the house of prayer and the character of its individuals.) The balance comes from item #1.

      All the best,

  2. Hi Merrill…Corinna.
    My first thought when I read about the facades and the possible reasons for unassuming ones was kind of grim. It was that Jews have learned over the ages that they are all too often the target of something. And not something good. So they have learned to be as unobtrusive as possible on the outside and hope to avoid unwanted attention. That was just my first thought. Not a good one to have, but that is honestly what struck me the most.

    It is good to talk to you guys again. It has been very hectic here, and I honestly haven’t had much energy for anything much outside of immediate duties. You may remember that I have spoken of my daughter’s partner of 13 years, Bill. They are both in Chapel Hill right now as his mother is in the ICU burn unit. She is 67 and facing skin grafts. If you would, please pray for June.

    I look forward to your posts this week. Next week I will be traveling again and hope to stop by. Merrill…..thoughts for Ben.

    Yours in Christ,

  3. Interesting comments about the buildings. I guess it proves you can have “church” anywhere—it’s not about the structure. A couple of years ago, I watched a series of lectures on Medieval cathedrals. Most took generations to build, and many workers started them knowing they wouldn’t live to see them completed. Many people think they were built to impress the power of the church on a compliant population. But the lecturer (a SUNY professor), explained how the architecture helped tell Biblical stories through carvings and stained glass, to a population that was largely illiterate. They were, literally, and expression of faith. Coincidentally, I just read a story in the L.A. Times about the Wilshire Temple, a huge synagogue just west of downtown. It’s a very impressive building and has just reopened after a multi-million dollar restoration. If you look at most of the world’s major religions, I think they all need a sense of “place”, some here you can surround yourself with fellow believers in a structure intended to support your meditations or prayers. I’ve recently read of atheist communities gathering together to discuss philosophy and ethics, even to sing humanist anthems, so I think the desire to gather together is a powerful human need regardless of faith and regardless of the physical space.

  4. Hi Tim….and Ginger, I meant to say hello to you, too. Merrill, Corinna…thank you for the thoughts. Rachel is supposed to call me tonight and hopefully there will be good news.

    Tim, I was just reading an article about an atheist association that has sprung into being in high schools to provide support for students who are atheists and to help stop bullying from Christians. I think your idea of the human need to convene with like is so true. What is particularly ironic about this association being able to work in a high school level is that the fundamentalists opened the door by forcing a legal act that would allow their presence on campus, for Christian students. My first thought is that the Christians who are doing the bullying have obviously not paid any attention to the first and greatest commandment. Sigh.

    Sorry I got a bit off topic. You are so right about the desire to gather. “See” you all later. 🙂

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