Holy teamwork builds holy dwellings

Rabbi Tracy Nathan


Let them make me a holy place, and I will dwell among them. According to all that I show you – the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furnishings – so you shall you make it.  — Exodus 25:8-9

The Book of Exodus begins with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, building for a human master in a way that denigrates them and their labor. 

In the second half of Exodus that begins with Parashat Terumah, the newly liberated Israelites are invited to contribute to the building of a mobile Mishkan, a sacred dwelling place for the Divine. The Torah sets forth a “pattern of the Mishkan and the pattern of all the furnishings,” not so we can build this exact object but rather to encourage us to build our own Mishkans that embody and express the values embedded in “the pattern.”  

The detailed description of the parts and construction of the Tabernacle points to the key difference between God’s building design and Pharaoh’s. God asks for voluntary, enthusiastic contributions that emerge from a heart moved to give. And the details of all the parts and how they connect show us how we might build communities that hold and manifest the Divine Presence. 

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For example, the sacred dwelling will be made of 10 strips of cloth with a design of cherubim (winged creatures with human faces) woven into them. The pieces of cloth are joined one to the other — in the Hebrew, isha el achotah, “a woman to her sister.” (Exodus 26:3). 

This phrase is repeated several times. The loops on the tapestries are to be connected isha el achotah; the clasps are connected isha el achotah, and this is so the Mishkan can become “one” (Exodus 26:6). The word used for join or attach is chibarta, which shares the same root as the word for friend, chaver. And the cherubim woven into the pattern of the tapestries and sitting on top of the Ark always come in pairs, for Mishkan-making is about teamwork, collaboration and building relationships. 

In describing the cherubim that appear on top of the Holy Ark, the two are described as facing each other – ish el achiv, a man to his brother (Exodus 25:20). It is here between the faces that God promises to speak, at the site of human authentic communication. 

All of these details hint at what this building project is about: people connecting with one another in ways that foster encouragement, support and creativity in service of drawing greater holiness, justice and love into our world. 

Mishkan work fosters face-to-face encounters. It is building for the sake of humanity. The Terumah, or raised-up gifts, are meant to lift all of us up, the sisters and brothers who not only contribute to the building but are also reflected within the created sacred dwelling. 

In Egypt, people were dehumanized, seen as objects to be used. In the Mishkan, even the beams and walls are humanized. They are part of the pattern of the Mishkan, which calls on us to center our projects and our processes around holy teamwork and collaboration, holy listening, face-to-face encounters and building relationships.

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is Senior Educator and Director of Melton at the Center for Jewish Learning at Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She is also a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.