‘It’s warm in here!’ That was my first reaction when together with some hundred and fifty Christians, Muslims and Jews of all ages I came out of the cold and wet London streets into the welcoming atmosphere of Great Portland Street Synagogue. (‘It’s the first time we’ve ever been in a synagogue, one family whispered to me on the way out. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones.)
Rabbi Barry Marcus, recently knighted by the Polish government for his interfaith work, had encouraging words for the group. He referred to the famous verse from tomorrow’s Torah reading, ‘You shall build me a sacred place, and I shall dwell in their midst’ and commented on the apparent disjunction: we build a holy space for God, but it is among us that God wants to dwell. It is a society worthy of such presence which we must all try together to create.
I find myself pondering that verse. It reads like a description, ‘They shall make’; but it sounds like an imperative, ‘Make! Whoever you are and whenever and wherever you live your task is to make a place where I can dwell close to you’.
Where is that place?
Out in the February sunshine I watch an early bee fly into the small white bell of a snowdrop. Is that God’s house to the bees?
The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who obviously loved the forests of Russia and missed them badly when he came to Palestine, used the language of the temple to describe the paths through the wood, ‘There is a tranquil holy place, hidden away amidst the shade-giving trees’. He’s not the first to find God’s home in nature. It’s wonderful retreat.
But it’s not how the Torah defines our task. The verse doesn’t say ‘and I will dwell among the trees’. ‘Amongst them’, it insists; God wants to be able to live among people like us.
In me and you? It’s true; in moments of inner quietness, calmed by silence or humbled in the presence of tenderness, by illness borne courageously or by some delicate gesture of one person’s affection for another, I have felt that a hospital room, or even the bones of my own ribcage might temporarily constitute the walls of a temple, that God is here, in this place and this moment. I have sensed this too when a large group immerses itself in prayer and each person’s silent contemplations somehow touch each other, creating a world of collective quietness into which the presence of God has somehow entered, unobserved but felt and known to the heart. I’ve witnessed this wonder in people of the same faith, and in people of different faiths when they truly find themselves, together.
Sadly, I also know what it means to desecrate such spaces. I’ve done it myself, through anger or ingratitude. (Twice last week people said to me, ‘I have such a good life; what contempt for God it would be if I were unthankful’, and neither of them had been through easy years.)
Tragically, we’ve witnessed God’s temple destroyed many times in incomparably worse ways, in the wanton murder of human beings, the generous life of Dan Uzan protecting the community in Copenhagen, the good life of Deah Barakat, ‘my brother with the kindest heart,’ in Chapel Hill.*(see below for links to interviews)
Beyond such acts in scale and compass lies the devastation of war, the lives cut off, the homes destroyed, the landscapes laid waste. Even in a just war, to speak anthropomorphically, God’s heart must ache and God’s tears flow. In an unjust, pointless, vicious war how angry and frustrated God must also feel: ‘It’s such a beautiful world in which I gave them the privilege to live, and they do this to one another!’
‘You shall build me a sacred place, and I shall dwell in their midst.’ What task could be more challenging, yet more urgent?
* The dignified and loving responses of the elder sister of Deah Barakat, and the elder brother of his newly-wed wife and her sister, are more than inspiring.