Before going into a complex description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell among them. This verse can be understood in a multitude of ways. On the one hand, it’s a paradox. If God is everywhere, why does God need a sanctuary to dwell in? And if the children of Israel are asked to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell among them, what, exactly are they being asked to do? And furthermore, why on earth does this sanctuary have to be so complicated and so ornate? Wouldn’t we want something simple, easily comprehensible and relatable for all? It seems, on the surface at least, like the barrier to entry—to being involved in the sacred work of construction, despite the fact that gifts are asked from all of the Israelites—is quite high. I see this verse as intensely contradictory, which is why I believe it speaks so beautifully to the messiness that is the work of building sacred inclusive communities in which we can bring our full selves.
What does it mean for us in our day to build God a sanctuary in which God can dwell? Though the answer for me is multifaceted and ever-changing, one teaching that is rooted in Hasidism which I find to be both inspiring and profoundly relevant is this notion that Judaism is a tradition that emphasizes taking the material world in which we all find ourselves and bringing spirituality into that world, lifting up the mundane and making it sacred. It is my belief that this is what is meant by God’s directive to all of us. And the work of transforming our communities in this way is incredibly hard and messy, but so worth it.
Too often, what I hear from individuals with disabilities who are trying to access Jewish community is that those around them felt profoundly discomfited by their presence. Folks who have sustained lived experience of instinctively knowing when others are uncomfortable around them for whatever reason, folks for whom disability—perhaps among other things as well—has presented a barrier to social inclusion as much as spiritual inclusion, are often incredibly reluctant to approach a new synagogue for fear of rejection, as I know from my own life. I am in a privileged position. I am able to access Jewish spaces and resources and have an amplified voice on disability issues often owing to my being a rabbinical student, and it is because of this that I feel it my personal and sacred responsibility to do all I can to get more of our communities on board with how important it is to include all of us. I, too, know how hurtful it can be when you try to enter a Jewish space and are met with profound coldness. And those memories, particularly when they happen in the context of religious communities, communities in which we’re told we will be loved for who we are and instead are met with the opposite, are lasting ones.
Choosing to present yourself to a new community is a tremendous act of bravery and, dare I say, faith, when for your entire life you may have gotten the message in a multitude of ways that you don’t belong, you’re not wanted here. Often, folks assume a default position of not being wanted and not belonging until proven otherwise, which is both a heartbreaking and understandable position. It is because of this that saying that a community is welcoming isn’t enough—that declaration must be coupled with tangible and sustained action.
As my views on how to practically do the work of inclusion have evolved, I have come to the firmly held belief that relationship is absolutely key. When an individual or family has a connection with people in the synagogue—and not merely because those folks help facilitate access—but because they have been able to connect around a multitude of shared interests and concerns, when genuine, reciprocal relationships begin to form, that’s when the work of inclusion really gets going. All of the accommodations in the world mean little if the individual is alienated from community life. All of the Braille siddurim and chumashim in the world mean little if every Shabbat a blind congregant comes to shul and is completely ignored at Kiddush. All of the supports provided mean little if the autistic child in the religious school is mocked or teased by classmates. In other words, the individuals in our communities with disabilities are yearning to be as integrally a part of the communal fabric as everyone else.
There is an oft-repeated saying in some segments of the disability community that access isn’t an add-on or a nice thing to do—it is the right thing to do. Access, defined broadly as I am trying to do here—is not merely providing the physical or programmatic accommodations needed. It is as much about feeling like every time you are in a space that the totality of your personhood is loved, accepted, and respected, and that you are seen for who you truly are—a unique, irreplaceable individual created in the image of God.
V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham—we are instructed by God to build a sanctuary so God can dwell among us. I noted earlier that having such fixed and complex instructions could be seen as posing a tremendous barrier to participation by the entire community. Making all feel welcome in our communities involves a lot of imagination, willingness to think outside of the box, to make mistakes and to grow from them. Indeed, it takes tremendous courage. God doesn’t leave room for error in God’s instructions to us, and still, the larger message of this pivotal commandment I believe has so much richness and spiritual depth. God can dwell in those sanctuaries where every person is valued and where we live out the teaching found in Genesis 1:27, that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God.
Lauren Tuchman is a rabbinical student, passionate about Judaism and social justice, grassroots community-building, text study, and ritual creation. She is dedicated to creating Jewish communities in which individuals can bring their whole selves and believes wholeheartedly that we all have important Torah to teach.
A version of this drash was originally delivered at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 13, 2016.