Building and Nature

by  Rabbis Evan J. Krame & David Evan Markus

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."  Construction trades tend more to concern gutters and girders than God, but Wright proclaims his connection with divinity, constructed in and through nature.  This week’s Torah portion (Ki Tisa) agrees, and offers us key reminders about how we can build Jewish lives meaningfully. 

Detailing plans for the Tent of Meeting, last week's Torah portion laid out in exquisite detail the structure, fixtures, vessels and ritual objects that are to be crafted with great flourishes and artistry.  The purpose was to build a physical place to remind that God, ever the Creator and Redeemer, will meet with the people and dwell among them.  The “amen” to the blueprints wasn't to stand back and admire: rather, the people – all the people – contributed raw materials. Now Torah appoints Betzalel – essentially the Frank Lloyd Wright to build the Tent of Meeting in all its enumerated splendor (Ex. 31:1-11– and Torah’s next instruction is to honor Shabbat, to stop building one day each week so that we can know holiness through God (Ex. 31-13-14).  The work of our hands may be divinely inspired (Ps. 90:17), but we build holiness not for the sake of an actual place but to immerse ourselves in relationship with the power and splendor we call God.

In that spirit, it’s no surprise that some of us more deeply experience spirituality outdoors in nature than indoors in houses of worship.  Mountains, oceans, dazzling sunsets and star-studded skies evoke wonder, awe and transcendence.  Despite Torah’s detailed instructions to build a house of God, we still seek temples of sky and cathedrals of towering trees – which is why Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known structures seamlessly glide between the human and natural, open to vistas and seeming to leap out of landscapes.  What’s more, Judaism’s holiest temple isn't a place of space at all but rather, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, a “palace in time” we call Shabbat – a day of grandeur designed precisely not to build anything at all.

The ancient Tent of Meeting is long past into history, but places to meet holiness still abound.  They are our physical prayer spaces, our synagogues of sky, our temples of tall trees, and our Shabbat palaces in time.  Whenever and wherever we give our heart to build awareness of wonder, awe and transcendence (in Hebrew, “build” and “meditate” share a common root), there God dwells among us.  There we can build a Jewish life dynamic as any Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, timeless as the mountains, deep as the oceans.  What a mobile spiritual gift we inherit, capable of being sparked anew anytime and anywhere we join together for that purpose.