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Creating Sacred Space

Our congregation, Beit Tikvah, rents space from a wonderful community. The sanctuary of First Christian Church/Disciples of Christ offers a peaceful haven to both of our religious communities and to other groups as well. Its distinctive shape can be seen by all those driving up Roland Avenue, towards Lake.

Glance up towards the west as you approach the end of the boulevard, and you see an uncommonly-shaped building. The sanctuary itself also offers a relatively uncommon vista. There is no stained glass, no organ pipes. There is nothing imposing in the architecture, but rather, a great deal that is inviting. Softly colored wood. Pews arrayed in circular ranks, three quarters of the way around the space. Simple furnishings. Very little overtly religious symbolism.

The sanctuary is very easily transformed into Congregation Beit Tikvah's space prior to our Friday night services, or on holidays. Our ark is easily wheeled in from its resting place in a discreet corner of the social hall. A few details - including a beautiful six-pointed cloth for the reading table - and our sacred space is ready.

Last fall, as services were about to begin one Shabbat, a recent Bar Mitzvah signaled me in urgent fashion, pointing to the ark. "The ner tamid .!" We had forgotten to re-kindle, and set atop the ark, what I have come to call our ner somewhat tamid, our almost eternal light.

Given our tenancy status, and our frugal portable equipment, our ner tamid set up suits us quite well - though a tall-enough person isn't always part of the set-up team, hence the "somewhat" aspects of our eternal light. Another recent Bar Mitzvah, along with his mother, gave the congregation a beautiful glass holder for the chunky candles that we use, that perfectly matches a stained glass magen david that sits on one side of the aron hakodesh during services.

Along with the priestly garb, ner tamid and other sanctuary appurtenances, Parshat Tetzaveh lavished a great deal of detail on the appearance of the mikdash, the first sanctuary, or Tabernacle. Leha'alot ner tamid, "to continually kindle[a] lamp," is a task to be undertaken and monitored by the Aaron and his sons, the priestly family.

Aaron and his sons have so many tasks, it's hard to imagine how they did it all wearing the elaborate garb described in the parsha. But the most intriguing piece of clothing is a small addition to the high priest's headdress, described in Exodus 28:36-38. A plate with the words kodesh ladonay, "holy to Adonay," is to be attached so that it hangs over his forehead, visible for all to see.

The ner tamid of the desert sanctuary is not exactly the same as the one we hang in our shuls, though we ascribe its origins to the one described above. And of course, what remains of the role of the kohanim has devolved to a ceremonial liturgical role, without the fancy garb of Aaron and his sons. No pomegranate shaped bells for their robes, no robes for that matter! In some congregations, some special blessings during festival services; the first aliyah reserved for descendants of the clan. No special signs on the forehead.

Back in Parshat Yitro, as the Israelites have just encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai, God speaks to Moses, instructing him to repeat these eloquent words to his flock, as translated by Everett Fox:

"You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to me. So now, if you will hearken, yes, hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be to me a special-treasure from among all peoples. Indeed all the earth is mine, but you, you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation." [Exodus 19:5-6]

The poetry of this passage always takes my breath away. It came to mind as I read the description in this week's parsha about the statement to be affixed to Aaron's headdress.

What if we were all to truly consider ourselves representatives of a mamlekeht kohanim, a realm of priests, vegoy kadosh, a people infused with holiness. Better still, what if we were to perpetually see on all our sister and brother Jews, especially those with whom we pray in community, a headdress that proclaimed such an identity?

What would be different? I would like to imagine that the reminder would be superfluous, that it would not make us treat each other with more deference our courtesy, that we need no reminders that we are all imbued with the Divine spirit, and that we are all due the highest kavod, respect.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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