In Parshat Terumah we read for the first time about the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle). We are introduced to the concept of the mishkan and told about the process of building and the details of what it is to contain. And we learn that the mishkan is designed to bring the Shekhina (Divine Presence) into the community of Am Yisrael.
What can we learn from the focus on the details of the mishkan’s construction?
Miriam Hoffman, in her article entitled “The Architecture of A Ritual,” discusses the ability of architecture to convey messages. She explores how the construction of “sacred spaces” can influence our experience of a physical location and the impact that can have on us. The article goes on to examine how the experience of a building shapes our behavior and the emotional experience in that space.
The article sites how early Gothic cathedrals were built with soaring ceilings that conjured up the immensity of heaven and employed colorful and bright stained-glass windows to evoke the feeling of the Divine light pouring in from above. It points out that when those cathedrals were built, most of the worshippers lived in single room wooden or mud houses with no windows. As a result, they felt an immense contrast, and the architecture of their place of worship underscored a feeling of the awe and wonder of Heaven. Indeed, the construction enabled the space to create the feeling of bringing an immense amount of light into their prayers.
In keeping with this understanding of the impact of the architecture on a person’s emotional experience, I believe that the details of the mishkan help us to understand the intention of this sacred space, and the message of the Divine Shekhina resting within. In fact, I think that’s exactly what the midrash in Shmot Rabba 33:4 tries to convey. The midrash teaches that the mishkan reflected all the things in Heaven; the midrash goes through in detail describing how each aspect of the mishkan represents another aspect of the Heavens. For example, the midrash notes that the veil of the mishkan divides between the kodesh (holy) and the kodesh haKedoshim (holy of holies), just as the רקיע (the firmament) divides between the waters above and the waters below (Gen 1:7). Likewise, the midrash parallels the configuration of the קרשים (the acacia wood boards) that surround the mishkan, with the seraphim (celestial angels) who stand surrounding Hashem in heaven. Each part of the mishkan physically represented another aspect of heaven, and as such, correlates with the idea of creating a structure that creates space within our community for the Shekhina.
The Torah, starting in Parshat Terumah but continuing in Parashat T’zaveh and later in the Torah, goes into great detail, discussing every aspect of what is needed within the mishkan – the measurements, the materials, the interplay of all the parts of the mishkan. Those details, I believe, model for us the attention and hard work, as well as the process and means of creating an atmosphere that welcomes the Shekhina. It’s not just that the mishkan represents God’s Presence here, but the process of creating it, the fine print and the attention to details, that itself serves as a part of what is needed to invite Hashem into our world and welcome the Shekhina.
When I envision the desert and the Jews trekking through it in these parshiot, I envision a huge expanse of sand, endless miles of sameness. So perhaps what Hashem intended to impart to Bnei Yisrael through the building of the mishkan was the idea of the need to actively create a space for ourselves. Hashem instructed us to create a framework to funnel our connection to Him, which underscored the values of community, of kedusha, of connection. Placing a physical structure in the never-ending desert expressed a unity of values within the vastness. And in our lives today there’s the vastness of so many other competing values – not necessarily as plain as the desert – but by instructing us to construct the mishkan, He modeled for us the idea of building a space within the openness, within the expanse of the world around us, to enable us to focus on the things that we value.
If the mishkan represents the idea of bringing the Shekinah into the community, the home represents the idea of bringing the Shekinah into our family, of a מקדש מעט that allows the Shekinah to dwell within us. Just like the mishkan can bring the Shekinah into the community of Am Israel, the home can bring the Shekinah into our families. Our home – our משכן מעט – allows us to invite the Shekhina into our lives and our family. If we parallel our physical homes to that of the mishkan, then perhaps beautifying our homes, taking the time to create an atmosphere through the details (the couches, the dishes or the lighting) that allows us to make our house warm and welcoming on a physical level. That turns a house from a physical structure which shelters us from the elements, to a home in which we can find ourselves, and invite Hashem in as well. If the Torah focuses on all the details of the mishkan in order to make it a place that can welcome Hashem, then, as a model for us, it would seem that we have to also focus on taking care of our homes to create space for the Divine. Taking that one step further, our physical bodies are also a home for the neshama. Taking care of ourselves and our physical bodies allows us to welcome a relationship with Hashem and the Tzelem Elokim that exists within us.
If the miskan represents the idea of bringing the Shekinah into the community, what enables that process is the concept of taharah (purity). Later parshiot repeatedly reinforce the message that to enter the mishkan, the kohen or any person entering needs to be tahor (pure). Taharah is a precondition for the Shekhina to dwell in the mishkan. Indeed, there are many halakhot given in detail throughout Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) about how to achieve the taharah that serves as the basis for the ongoing relationship Am Yisrael has to the Shekhina. The mikveh is but one, but an essential part of the process. The steps to tahara are detailed, complicated, and demanding, but also serve as the foundation for the ongoing entry of Hashem’s Presence into the community of Am Yisrael.
Just like in the mishkan, where there’s a lot of hard work and details to reach the level of purity to bring the Shekhina in, so too in our families and relationships we enable the process through the taharah of the mikveh. This process is hard work – which people are not always enamored with – but it allows us to bring the Shekhina in to our lives and intimate relationships.
The work of The Eden Center is aimed at enabling taharah not as an end in and of itself but as a means to a goal that is much greater: the goal of allowing for the Divine to enter our lives and for Divine goodness to fill our intimate relationships and our relationship with our bodies. The Eden Center works hard to connect women’s health and intimacy education with the concept of mikveh as part of the goal of achieving the broader sense of tahara which is the foundation for a healthy home and healthy family.
Going to the mikveh is not just about filling in a physical checklist; it reminds and enables a woman to be introspective, educate herself, and be healthy – to explore her body, her relationships and connect to Hashem as a woman and a wife. The preparations required for the mikveh provide the opportunity for us to concentrate on our bodies, and on our physical and mental selves. It is a time when we have to check our bodies from head to toe. If we are able, we can use the preparation time to get in touch with our bodies and needs.
Miriam Hoffman’s article highlights how the architecture of the mikveh can influence our experience, as well as raising the idea of reimagining how the mikveh space can reflect its status as a sanctuary for feminine spirituality and wellness that highlight the fact that healthy women are the foundation for healthy families and healthy families build stronger, healthier communities. We should be tailoring our mikvaot to be beautiful and inspiring spaces, the physical aspect of which reflects our worth as women.
But it shouldn’t end there.
Mikveh allows us the opportunity to connect to ourselves, to take time to concentrate on our own needs and the needs of our relationship. Mikveh connects the Tzelem Elokim of our spiritual beings, with the physical kedusha of our bodies. It allows us to be mindful and check in, as we literally go over every part of our body. Finally, it highlights in a very powerful way that we should love and embrace our bodies, just as the mikveh waters embrace our fully naked and beautiful being, devoid of external coverings and hatzizot.
A carefully fashioned space – whether it is the mishkan, our home, our mikveh, or the attention we give to our bodies – has the power to nourish and shelter, inspire and heal. Let us use the lessons of Parshat Terumah, of the intentionality in the building of the mishkan, to recognize the impact that our physical spaces can create in contributing to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health and take those messages into our families, our homes and into our community.