Shabbat Message: All Life Can Be a Sanctuary

Posted on March 12, 2021 by Arnold S. Gluck

This week’s double Torah portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei, describes the completion of the Tabernacle, the very first sanctuary of the Jewish People. What I find most notable about the construction of this sacred space is how the resources were secured for the project. There was no mandatory participation, no tax levied to raise funds. Instead, the community – all whose hearts so moved them – was invited to bring free-will offerings. It is this – the stirring of the heart – that was the essential element in creating a holy space. It was back then, and it is still the case today.

Absent the heart, the Tabernacle of yesteryear and the synagogue of today are just wood and cloth, or brick and mortar – mundane structures devoid of sanctity, no matter how ornate or intricate their design may be.

We learn this lesson from a story that is told of the great Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. The Besht, as he was known, would travel among the shtetls of Eastern Europe, going from synagogue to synagogue to breathe life and spirit into the souls of his downtrodden people. One day, as he approached a particular shtiebl (a little house of prayer), he had a vision. In his mind’s eye he saw the angels on high all astir. They were covering their ears to block out the sounds that were rising from the shul down below. Suddenly the Baal Shem was able to hear what they heard, the sound of people arguing, of petty disputes and selfish concerns.

The door to the shtiebl opened before him and a gust of wind blew through. Papers flew, pages of prayer books turned, and yarmulkes blew off. All eyes turned to the door to behold the arrival of the Baal Shem. But instead of entering the shul, he just stood there. After a few moments, one of leaders of the congregation approached him and invited him to come in, but he refused. “I cannot enter,” said the Besht. “There is no room in here for me.”

Everyone looked around. There were many people and the shul was full in anticipation of his visit, but there was certainly room for the sainted rabbi. A place of honor had been reserved just for him, they assured him. But the Baal Shem wouldn’t budge.

“This room is filled to the brim with your selfish and contentious words,” said the Baal Shem. “You are each too filled with yourselves and your own importance. You have left no room in your thoughts and prayers for anyone else. What room have you left for God? There is no space in God’s own house for God, and so there is no room for me.” And so, the Baal Shem turned and left, entering the forest, God’s sanctuary of nature, to meditate, to pray, and to connect his heart to the heart of all being.

The most magnificent temple can be spiritually empty, a mere physical structure. And a box on a computer screen can be the holy of holies. Surely, we have learned this over the course of this past year. We are only as far apart from each other and from God as our hearts will permit. And when our hearts are open, to each other and to God, we are as close to God and one another as the air we breathe, and “all life becomes a sanctuary.”

May the beauty and serenity of Shabbat be upon you and may God’s presence be with you and bless you, now and always.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck