"Why Have You Not Built Me a House of Cedar?"

April 13th: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion celebrates the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable tent temple which our ancient ancestors carried with them on their wanderings through the wilderness. When they arrived in the Promised Land, the Mishkan was pitched in several places, but the most famous was Shiloh. (The modern West Bank city of Shiloh celebrates this heritage with a synagogue constructed to look like the ancient Mishkan.)

Eventually, of course, the Mishkan was replaced with the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, and our Haftarah wrestles with a kind of ambivalence about which is the best setting for worship. On the one hand, the Temple was glorious: it was renowned the world over, and the closeness to God achieved there was amazing. On the other hand, does God really need such a fancy place? As God says to the prophet Nathan: “Go and say to My servant David: Thus said the Lord: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle (Mishkan). As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?” (Second Samuel 7.4-7.)

Indeed, after the Temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, there were still holdouts among the Israelites for a simpler, nature-oriented worship: not in the midst of a great edifice in a noisy city, but on the top of a hill or in a grove of beautiful trees. We know about these holdouts because, for centuries after the Temple was built, the prophets railed against those who continued to worship at these bamot / high places.

 In modern times, many worshippers feel the same tension. Synagogue and church architecture can be wonderful, and there are some incredible buildings that give honor to God and inspire the worshippers. On the other hand, many worshippers also feel a special holiness in more natural places—mountain tops, forests, or seashores. I remember the story of one of my predecessors in Savannah, Rabbi Solomon Starrels, who used to live on the beach and found great holiness in the surf. That, said he, was where he felt the closest to God. Those of us who have spent time at Jewish summer camps can attest to the special spirituality of an outdoor chapel. In fact, if you look at the publicity materials of most camps, special mention is made of the natural holiness the campers find in these non-synagogue worship places. And, do not forget the special sense of the Divine which many pilgrims find pretty much anywhere in Israel: on Masada, overlooking the Jordan Valley, on Mount Carmel or Hermon. Even the remnant of the Temple—the Western Wall—is now an outdoor worship space, and it is certainly filled with holiness.

This curious irony can sometimes be seen at Protestant churches. On the lawn, right next to a beautiful church, many congregations will set up an old-fashioned revival tent—to get back to the simplicity of the good ol’ days, but only occasionally.

How fortunate for us that God can be met in many places—in the sanctuary and in the field, in communal worship and in solitary meditation. Remember what David said: “The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call out wholeheartedly.” (Psalm 145)