As a boy, I remember visiting one of the last cathedral-style synagogues in the country. It was an old synagogue on Maxwell Street in Chicago. I remember standing in the sanctuary and feeling sincerely let down. The shul was falling apart – the stained-glass windows were cracked or shattered, trash was piled up in the corners of the sanctuary, pigeons were flying and roosting in the rafters and, in the midst of the Chicago winter, there was no heat.
All the while I stood in that sanctuary, I could not help but imagine what this shul must have been like during its prime – people packing the pews, the beautifully ornate chazzanut, the rabbi's drashot – I kept imagining what the splendor of that sacred space must have been like during its prime. And I felt disappointed that the power and majesty that once inhabited that old synagogue was no more. That was, however, until I approached the Aron Kodesh and read the inscription above it: "Know before Whom you stand." As I thought about those words, I realized that however dilapidated that sanctuary was, God inhabited that space all along, I just did not realize it.
The idea that God is before us at all times, no matter where we go, no matter what we do, is identified by Rabbi Moshe Issreless, (also known as the Rema), as one of the most important principles of Judaism, writing, "I place the Lord before me always, this is a great principle of the Torah" (Rema, OC 1:1). But having the awareness that God is always present with us is an extremely difficult ideal to attain. Think about it. It is so easy to ignore God! It is so easy to feel spiritually disconnected during our work-a-day weeks when we feel bogged down by our obligations, by our professional and interpersonal responsibilities. But, if "I place the Lord before me always," if always being aware that we are standing in the presence of God is one of the greatest principles of Judaism, then how can we attain it?
If we turn to the words of our parsha, we may be able to find a way. At the beginning of Parshat Terumah, God commands Moshe and the Jewish people, "Build Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). Now, at first glance, this commandment seems very strange. Why would God need a sanctuary, a house, to contain His presence? The Mechiltah, Parshat Bo 16, addresses the strange nature of this command. According to the Mechiltah, Moshe says to God, "Build You a house? O God, do we not already know that Your presence fills the heavens and the earth?!" God replies to Moshe, saying, "I know My presence fills the heavens and the earth, but I want you to build Me a house because I want you to receive the benefit of building it!" That is to say, "I want you to know what it feels like to actively, deliberately, and consciously build Me a place – make a space in your lives for Me, so that you can always sense My presence in your midst."
The Jewish ideal of always placing God before us is not easy to attain. It takes a lot of work. Like the construction of the Mishkan, it requires us to deliberately and thoughtfully give of our resources, our time and our energy. But, my bracha for all of us, is that we find the strength and the focus to build our own Mishkans – our own ways of connecting to God in our everyday lives, so that we can feel that God truly dwells amongst us, always.