Housing the Divine
If you build it...
You never know how a fresh pair of socks and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will affect someone. This was one of many takeaways from a trip I took to Portland a few years ago with a group of teens. While in town, we went to Night Strike, a community gathering that mobilizes volunteers to traverse the city streets and engage with those experiencing homelessness. The joy that was apparent on the faces of those we met was palpable. But it came from more than just the gift of objects; they were touched most deeply by the genuine conversations that we had and the experience of really being seen and heard.
The purpose of the whole trip was to engage with and begin thinking about the challenge of homelessness in America. Recent studies show that there are over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness in America for a multitude of reasons. We met a small number of them at locations like Dignity Village, the longest-existing, continually operating, city-sanctioned homeless village in the United States. The hope at the village is that while folks await more permanent housing, they can be recognized in their personhood, value, and dignity that they may have lost after years on the streets.
Those who have always had the privilege of secure housing do not often think of how sacred and precious having a home is. This concept is perhaps more ancient than we think. As we come to the end of the book of Exodus in the portion of Pekudei this week, we see Moses and the Israelites preparing the final touches on the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that traveled with the Israelites.
In Exodus, 40:33-34, we read:
“When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle.”
That clause about Moses finishing the work evokes strong connections to the creation story for the sages; it’s the same word the Torah uses to describe God finishing the work of creation (Genesis 2:2). As British Chief Rabbi Sacks, of blessed memory, states,
“The creation of the Sanctuary by the Israelites is intended to represent a human parallel to the Divine creation of the universe. In making the world, God created a home for mankind. In making the Tabernacle, mankind created a home for God.” 1
The very act of housing meriting something divine is embedded within our tradition.
Yet, this portion goes even further in making that connection. Rabbenu Bahya2 notes that throughout the whole narrative around the construction of the tabernacle, the word asah עשה, do/make, is used 248 times. 248 is also the number of positive commandments in the Torah, along with the rabbinic conception of the number of bones in the human body. (Think of this as spiritual anatomy rather than medical.)
Rabbeinu Bahya concludes that not only does this section parallel the very act of creation but it also demonstrates that human beings, created in the image of God, are the very reason the world exists. It is incumbent upon us to create spaces for God to come into the world. I would add, if we are not doing everything we can to create structures to house all holy human beings, then we are not doing our part in imitating godliness.
The root causes of homelessness are vast and beyond the scope of this piece, but there are a few things that we can do in the present. We can expand the housing choice voucher program, which has limited reach right now. We can push our local legislatures to enforce “Housing First,” an approach to homelessness that quickly provides permanent housing for individuals and families without preconditions or barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment, or service participation requirements. On top of that, we can continue to press the federal government for more homeless relief aid, such as what they provided in the early parts of the pandemic.
When it comes down to it, helping those experiencing homelesness is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. As we learn from our sacred tradition this week, if you build it, not only will God come but so too will all of those created in God’s image. It’s exactly what we’re put here to do.
Medieval Spanish biblical commentator