A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany, Sept. 6, 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

“That I May Dwell Among Them…”

In this week’s Torah portion (Parshat Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19), God instructs Moses how Israel should make the sanctuary. He tells Moses, “וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם.” Let them make for me a mikdash, a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them – v’shachanti betocham.

How can it be that God needs for them to build the mikdash in order to dwell among Israel? Surely God is everywhere. The chasidic masters say that actually, we should read the word betocham not as “among them,” but rather “within them.” They explain that each of us should become “A chariot for the shechina (the immanent face of God).”

But perhaps we can be literal. Perhaps there is a way in which we do need to build a place for God to dwell among us.

Every politician seems to try to outdo the other in telling us how godly a country America is, and that our greatness as a country comes from our religious roots.

And yet.

Some of these same leaders speak of cutting off the “rush” of refugees to our borders. Ironic, since when I not so long ago inquired about what kind of assistance Syrian refugees coming to our country might need, I was told that actually, there aren’t so many of them that there’s much of a need. But there is surely no shortage of people fleeing trouble, seeking shelter, freedom and safety.

The psalmist speaks of God as a bird whose wings shelter those who are oppressed or in fear.  If we are to be a mishkan, a sacred dwelling place, we should act in imitation of God who provides refuge and shelter.

Every refugee, every human, is b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, filled with the divine spark.

Unless our place is a place that we have built to give safety, refuge, and aid to those who are most vulnerable, then there is no place for God.

The Kotsker rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, once asked his students the very question we ask above: Where is God?  Is there a place where God is found?

When his students incredulously answered that, of course, God is everywhere, the famously cranky rebbe shook his head, no. God is only where we let God in. And to let God in, we must let in Her children.

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