Nine and a half years ago, when Kehillat Nashira was a new dream, Gaby and I, the minyan’s founding chairpeople, spent much time thinking about our ethos and our goals, bringing a team together and planning for our first service. But something that took an inordinate amount of time, was designing a mechitza which would not only look good and do the job, but which would also pack away. We researched parasol bases and colourful net curtains, we went to B&Q for dowelling rods (the thickest they had) and sawed them down to size. We padded out the gaps with gaffa tape and considered the trip hazard in our risk asessment.
Our mechitza design and assembly is what comes to mind reading this week’s sedra, Terumah. It is the first of four sidrot which describe in loving detail the colours and fabrics, embroidery and metalwork, fixtures and fittings of the Mishkan, the portable Temple. Along with decorative details, gorgeous just for the sake of being gorgeous, were functional elements - poles for carrying, loops and fittings to attach the poles to.
“Let them make me a sanctuary” says God, “and I will dwell among them” - words put to a beautiful tune by Debbie Freidman (check out this version by British female cantors). It’s an extraordinary claim that with the right physical environment, God’s presence can be among us.
Midrashim echo my surprise through the imagined voice of Moshe: When the Holy Blessed One said to Moshe, “Make me a dwelling-place,” Moshe was surprised Moshe said, “The Glory of the Holy Blessed One fills the upper and lower realms, and God says: ‘Make me a dwelling-place’?!” The Holy Blessed One said [to Moshe], “I do not think like you think. Rather: 20 planks in the north (of the mishkan), and 20 planks in the south, and 8 planks in the west (see Exodus 26:15-25).
“Not only that, but I will descend and limit My presence to fit within one square cubit.”
(Shemot Rabbah 34:1)
While humans might imagine God to be uncontainable, God can choose to self-limit (a kabbalistic idea called tzimtzum) in order for us to feel God’s proximity. And as Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writes, this rings true: “there are places that carry a stronger spiritual valence for me, and make it easier for me to connect to God. For instance, I often experience God’s presence more intensely when I am near the open ark in synagogue. My heart still skips a beat when the doors open, and I feel in a heightened emotional state, connecting to the palpable presence of God. It is as if a direct channel is opened for me.”
It is no coincidence that shuls, study houses and even homes can go by the name “mikdash me’at” - “a little sanctuary” - a term taken from Ezekiel 11:16. As Rav Huna says in the Gemara (Megillah 29a) “Whoever prays the Amidah in a synagogue in this world, it is as if they prayed in the sanctuary”.
Our nearly decade-old mechitza is probably due a refresh, but for me its colours have inspired my connection to Judaism and our prayers over the years. We’ve added to it a gorgeous tallit-like table cloth, wooden book stand and various other bits of shul furniture. I hope Kehillat Nashira will continue to grow its collection of physical objects which enhance our sense of Godliness. And just maybe, one day we won’t need them to be quite as portable.