Construction at the Temple: What Have We Learned?

Sermon given February 21, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

This week’s Torah portion is just one of five portions in a row, all about the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Somebody once referred to these last five portions of Exodus as, “the boring parts of the Torah.” First, God tells Moses what materials to collect. Then, God tells Moses exactly how to build this portable sanctuary that the Israelites will carry through in the desert. Next, the materials are collected. We get side-tracked into a riveting discussion of garments to be worn by the Priests. Then, at last, the whole thing is described again as it is actually built. Bored yet?

To be perfectly frank, this series of events sounds all too familiar to some of us here at Temple Beth-El. We have been engaged in a construction project, in one form or another, for going on six years, from needs assessment to master plan to financial feasibility study to capital campaign to design to relocation to construction to moving back into a building still under construction, and next week to dedication, and then back to construction again. Moses didn’t know the half of it.

Early in the process, folks would joke to me about the education I was getting. True enough, I learned about quite a few things that were not previously part of my vernacular. I now know a fire rated wall from a load bearing one. I know that a Mechanical Engineer is a person who deals with air conditioning and heating systems. Last Thursday, we had a fuse blow in one of our compressors here in the Oppenheimer Chapel, the only place where the air conditioning was not replaced. Parts of the building filled with smoke, and somebody pulled the fire alarm. Only later, when the Fire Department had investigated, did I learn that at least one old adage is not true: Where there’s smoke, there isn’t necessarily fire!

I could go on, using up my full twelve minute allotment to talk about all the knowledge that I have acquired about construction. I studied none of that in rabbinic school. Perhaps more interesting, though, is to consider what we as a congregation have learned from this process, about sacred space and about ourselves.

Arguably, our two most important lessons are contradictory. First, Temple life can flourish anywhere; and second, our congregation shares a sacred covenant with this building.

Let’s start with the first. Relocation was a magnificent success. Our congregation never missed a beat. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we were ever worried about how our members would respond to Temple services in a Church social hall, but we were. Certainly, we wondered how we would survive a full year of Religious School in a facility designed and furnished for adult students, where we could not keep so much as a poster or a pencil from one week to the next. And trust me, we were not looking forward to operating our offices out of a tiny temporary building on the parking lot, with only one meeting room.

We were richly blessed. Our friends at Christ Episcopal Church gave of themselves freely. Their home became our home, on Shabbat and on Wednesday afternoons and evenings. Though we talked about it less, the truth is that we were equally blessed at San Antonio College, which gave us McCreless Hall, every Sunday, for a year and a half, without charging us, even for providing us with the services of their wonderful security officers.

Ironically, the sanctity of our congregation grew when we were out of our sacred Temple. Our Early Shabbat Service took on new life in Parish Hall. Erecting our Sukkah on Church grounds added new meaning to our interfaith relations. Our Religious School has never felt so good, as it did in McCreless Hall. And, cramped as it was, that little trailer across the street became home.

In the first of the five Torah portions about the building of the Tabernacle, Terumah, God says: “Let them build Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Notably, God does not say: “Let them build Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in it.” God dwells not in any particular place, but in the people.

Our worship in Parish Hall was made holy by the prayers and generosity of our Episcopalian friends, who opened their home to us. Our worship in Parish Hall was sanctified by the Holy Ark, lovingly designed and handcrafted by our Past Presidents, Bernard Harris and Gerald Dubinski. Above all, though, our worship in Parish Hall invited God’s presence because we gathered there as a holy congregation, seeking the Divine. Perhaps because we had to work harder, we created there a ruach, a spirit of holiness, equally holy to the sanctity we achieve within these hallowed walls. We were building our Sanctuary, but we were not here; God dwelt in us.

As I said, our two lessons seem to contradict each other. If we can achieve holiness anywhere, why would we need to undertake the considerable effort of remodeling, renovating and expanding the Temple itself? The sacrifice was tremendous. How can it have been worth the trouble, if we were so successful at praying in a Church hall, holding classes in a college and operating out of a trailer?

Indeed, there is a risk to placing such emphasis on an edifice. It’s no coincidence that, in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, right smack in the middle of the section about building the tabernacle, the Children of Israel erect the golden calf. Worse, mindful of the precious metals that God asked them to give for the construction of the Tabernacle, the people utilize many of the same materials to dishonor God with an idol.

The message is clear: If we are not careful, our holy Temple can become an idol. If we value our Sanctuary’s physical beauty more than what it represents, we are worshiping a modern golden calf. We can be blinded by the beaming marble around the Ark, deflecting our attention from the service of our God.

Fortunately, my observation of our congregation, throughout this process, is that we have not been guilty of such sins. Consider the family that dreamed of celebrating a Bar Mitzvah in the Temple Sanctuary, and even delayed the occasion for several months, in order to do so, but who ultimately were forced to hold that life-cycle occasion in other precincts. Disappointed at first, they nevertheless found that God dwelt within them, not so specifically in the Sanctuary itself. They found holiness in their family milestone, in McAlister Auditorium. I’m thinking too of the families who were displaced from our temporary home. For two families, earlier this winter, Parish Hall became unavailable for kiddush luncheon after Bat and Bar Mitzvah. Their reaction could well have been that insult had been added to injury. Instead, they found sacred celebration in relocation from a relocation. The holiness, they found, is not in any one place, but in the community, gathering with God’s blessing for sacred service.

So, again we ask: Why bother, then, with all this work on the Temple, if our holy community can meet God anywhere? What I have found is that this congregation lives in covenant with its Temple. Yes, we were flexible, and we could take our experience of the Divine with us as we traveled. And yet, like the ancient Israelites meeting God at the Holy of Holies during their desert wanderings, our community of Temple Beth-El finds God most profoundly within these walls.

We can not quantify the meaning for a bride, of being married on the bimah of Temple Beth-El, where she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and her Confirmation, where her parents and grandparents were married before her, where she may mark great moments in the life of her children in the decades to come. Many of you, with me, experienced the exuberance of our youth, welcoming some 250 of their cohorts from around the region to their Temple, the very first weekend that we moved back into the building. I was blessed, that Sunday, to walk around our Religious School, soaking in the energy of our first day back home, after a year and a half. Though none could articulate it, the kids were inspired to new heights of learning, for the congregation had expended such effort and resources to create a brand new Religious School, just for them and the children to come after them. Two weeks ago, at Sisterhood Interfaith Sabbath, we offered tours to our guests, and hosted them in the revitalized Barshop Auditorium. Sharing our Temple, with a sense of pride, made that morning truly sacred.

In the desert, when the Children of Israel would travel from one place to another, they would pack up their holy Tent of Meeting, wrap up each sacred object with care, lift the Ark of the Covenant, and carry the entire Tabernacle to their next encampment. Eventually, they arrived in the Promised Land. Centuries later, God commanded King Solomon to build the Holy Temple. There, a permanent home was found for the Ark that had traveled with the Israelites in the desert.

For almost two years, we were like those ancient Israelites, figuratively, if not literally, carrying our Temple with us from place to place. Now, we are home. We learned that, like our ancestors in the desert, we can find our God, wherever our community gathers to live out our covenant. We learned, too, that there is unique sanctity to our sacred gatherings in our Temple. We have built a Sanctuary for the Lord. May God dwell within us.