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Backward Design of Holy Space – Parashat Pekudei

Meredith Polsky

building space for all honors God, MatanSometimes building something backwards is the most logical choice. In education, teachers often design their exam first and then create lessons that will guide students to learn the correct answers. Advocates imagine the final change they seek, and then engage in the strategic planning necessary to get there. When we start at the end, we ensure that what we value most is central to both our planning and our execution. What really matters is not overlooked.

In this week’s parasha, Pekudei, we are told about the concluding instructions necessary in building the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – a portable symbol of God’s presence. It is written that Bezalel, the architect of the Mishkan, did “all that God commanded Moses,” (Exodus 38:22). Rashi wonders why the text explicitly mentions that Bezalel did what “God commanded to Moses” and not “what Bezalel himself was commanded,” and explains that this particular phrase is included to highlight a discrepancy between Bezalel and Moses’s understanding of the instructions:

“Moses commanded Bezalel to make the furnishings first, and afterwards the Mishkan. Bezalel said to him, the common practice of the world is to make a house, and afterword to put furnishings in it.” (Rashi on Exodus 38:22)


Bezalel’s logic is sound, but perhaps misguided. So often we design our building, our program, or our community without deeply considering what will happen inside. So often we build first, and accommodate later.

And surely this happens when we think about the inclusion of people with disabilities in our communities. We too often forget to think about the people who make up our communities, those currently present and those who have been marginalized, before building our schools, temples and youth groups. And then, when someone asks for an accommodation, we find that it is simply too expensive, too difficult or both. We see accommodation as a burden because we did not place it in our original plan.

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The Union for Reform Judaism has committed itself to “audacious hospitality.” We hope to model ourselves off of our patriarch Abraham, who warmly reached out to and welcomed the three angels who approached his tent. Many of our communities have taken on this challenge, and at our Biennial conference last November, we had the honor of recognizing twenty-seven “exemplar congregations” that have led the way by making strides in inclusion in an aspect of Jewish life. These congregations know that focusing on the core of our community – the people – will lead us to spaces that magnify the sacred spark in each person. These communities have learned that by building space that is meant for all of our people, we honor their presence, and we honor God.

Rashi concludes that Bezalel’s intuition to build the Mishkan before its furnishings was  correct, but as we construct our own holy spaces we may consider taking a “backward” approach. When we set out to build a school building, that will be inclusive from the outset, we find a way to incorporate changes into our blue print. When we conceive Shabbat services with a core understanding that all who come to worship will have a pathway to communicate with God, we create a prayer experience that meets the aspirations of our fellow worshipers. Ultimately, working from the inside out is not backward at all. Pirkei Avot teaches, “don’t look at the flask but what it contains,” (4:27). If we start with people at the center, we will build spaces not only worthy of our tradition, but we will create holy spaces where God’s presence will dwell.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner; Matan


Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.


Tyler DratchTyler Dratch is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Tyler’s legislative portfolio includes disability rights and economic justice.

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