Parashat Terumah begins a sequence of many chapters detailing the Mishkan, the "tabernacle" or literally "dwelling place" representing the presence of God as our ancestors traveled the desert.
We all have special places in our lives -- locations infused with memories and feelings connected with important times and people. Many of us have spiritual places as well. Sometimes these are the same places. Or we have mountains, lakes, paths or woods where we can reflect or meditate, feel awe or calm.
The Mishkan was of course a standard place, not a personal place. But the Torah says, "Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25:8). Not "I will dwell in its midst" -- in the sanctuary -- but in their midst. The official place was not meant to be God's only place. Instead, the Mishkan was a vehicle to help everyone feel God's presence personally, and in the community.
Synagogues have certain features patterned on the Mishkan. The aron kodesh (ark) with the Torah corresponds to the ark that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, for instance. Like the Mishkan, the synagogue is a certain kind of spiritual place, but not the only kind. For many of us, there are things we can only experience at the lake or by the sea. But only in the synagogue can we experience, week in and week out, the presence of other people who are also seeking God, or searching for insight, joy, or tranquility. A synagogue as lovely as Beth Abraham warms us together in its space, and surrounds us with images of holy days and Torah.
The verse -- "Let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst" -- supplies another essential element of the synagogue. A shul is only a sanctuary when the people there truly feel God in their midst. We all contribute to each other's feeling of holiness, if we come there with a sense of holiness, or at least a search for it. It's not just the building's job, but the community's as well. In the synagogue, we always pray not only as individuals, but as helpers and supporters to other people. By singing, or simply standing quietly and soulfully, we make it possible for one another to find something spiritual in a sanctuary.