V’asu Li Mikdash and the ‘holiness project’

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 16 Feb 2017: V’asu li mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham.

Recording with English words: “We’ll make You a holy home, and You will live with us.”

Buy the sheet music: $2.25 (approx. £1.80), minimum 4 copies

God is to be found in people, and in community

Biblical Hebrew is a language that can allow for several interpretations of a single word, phrase or sentence. Because of this, I find Biblical text beautiful and endlessly fascinating. We have a blessing for studing Torah which concludes ‘la’asok b’divrei torah‘, meaning ‘to immerse (ourselves) in the words of Torah’: Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches of a pun he learned from Rabbi Max Ticktin, where la’asok (immerse) is translated as ‘soak’. Being both a writer of words and a musician, I love to soak myself in the meanings and sounds of Hebrew and English.

Rabbi Shefa Gold’s translation of Ex. 25:8 (the text for this chant/round) is: “Make for Me a Holy Place so that I may dwell within, among, between them.” Shefa’s wording echoes a teaching from long-held Jewish tradition, that, when a group of us intentionally creates space and time for turning to God, God dwells not in that space, but in us. This is a beautiful reminder to look for God not so much in things or objects, but in people’s actions, in relationships between people, and in people themselves.

I set this text to music (as a two part round) originally in the Hebrew, to be sung for the first time at the bar mitzvah service for my godson Gabriel (the Torah reading for that week being Terumah). Gabriel had prepared an interesting Torah experience for us with our friend Dave. They had built a small structure as a temporary mikdash (sanctuary), so that we as a community could join in a drama enactment. We were to approach the mikdash and offer a word that represented a quality that we wanted to contribute to the community. And the song was to be a prayerful meditation for us all to sing during this process.

God and humanity – meeting each other half way

Dave asked me if I could create an alternative English set of lyrics that we could sing with the music I had written for the Hebrew. For those who were not so at ease with Hebrew, this was intended to help them feel more included and connected to what we were doing; we could alternate Hebrew and English. Dave’s request was a good one. But it can be very difficult to find an English text that ‘works’. I like English song lyrics to be inspiring and poetic, with several alternative meanings if possible; lyrics can then speak to emotion as well as intellect. Otherwise, lyrics can seem somewhat didactic, prosaic, or simplistic/naive.

And then there’s the question of whether to try and create simply a translation that is as close as possible to the Hebrew, or whether to create English words that are more obviously an interpretation or expansion, or even a commentary that adds a different perspective. And whatever the approach, I like the English words to be similar to the musical rhythms that I create for the original Hebrew. That way, the original character of the music is retained, and those singing it can more easily switch from Hebrew to English without tripping up. So, with those thoughts in mind, here are some ideas that I worked through before I reached my final English version.

1. “When you make me a holy place, I live among you.”

This is a fairly close translation, which at the same time offers a universal, spiritual message. (The translation of b’tocham as ‘them’ has been switched to ‘you’.) This lyric emphasises the lived experience we have of the Divine in the process of our making the effort to create holy space and time. And the phrase ‘when you make me a holy place’ can have two meanings:

  • ‘when you (humans) make me (God) into a holy place (ie recognise me-God as hamakom – a God-name meaning ‘the Place’)’
  • ‘when you (humans) put aside a time and a place to focus on and acknowledge me (God)’

I like that possible double meaning, and have aimed to retain it in the next versions.

2. “If you make me a holy place,  I will live among you”

This lyric emphasises a more conditional, transactional relationship: if we make holy space and time, then – and perhaps only then – we will experience God. Well, the Hebrew could mean that, but that was not the sense I wanted to set to music. And such a formulation seems to exclude, or at least neglect, the reality that God, in God’s lovingkindness (chesed), can and does live amongst and within us even when we ignore or reject God. It’s just that we don’t always notice.

3. “When we make You a holy home, You live and love with us.”

(1) and (2), while more literal readings of the Hebrew, require the congregant/singer to become the mouthpiece (‘I’) of God, speaking to humans as ‘you’. I’m uncomfortable with that and it makes me feel detached and ‘dry’. When I pray/sing, I prefer to speak as me, and for the word ‘I’ to refer to me! So this version (3) – switching the pronouns – enables us to pray/sing as ourselves, expressing, I hope, the same essence in the text. And it has the advantange of our being able to use the text/chant to engage with, and address, God directly.

If possible, I like to find some English lyrics that have the same emotional/spiritual feel as the music I have composed. At least in this lyric (3), the language is beginning to feel more poetic and evocative: ‘holy home’ is alliterative (repetition of ‘h’) and assonant (repetition of the sound ‘o’), and ‘live and love’ is more musical with the l’s and v’s. Picking up on Shefa Gold’s lead, b‘tocham has been translated as ‘with us’; this feels more intimate and companionable. I have added ‘love’ as an interpretative addition to deepen the ‘feeling’ connection. However, I am still concerned that, like (1) and (2), this third lyric still feels a little theoretical, didactic and formal. And the lyric comes across as a generalisation, which doesn’t make for intimacy.

4. “We’ll make You a holy home, and You will live with us.”

This fourth version of an English lyric enables us to address God directly, from our own perspective. Perhaps, like the Hebrew, it suggests an event in the future – the arrival of the Shechinah (the in-dwelling presence of God) if we make the effort to make time and space for her. I like the aspirational feel of this version. For me, it chimes with that part of Jewish life that is about both yearning, and intention to make a better world.

The second half of the lyric has a double meaning: God’s in-dwelling might be conditional on our making a holy space, or/and it may happen unconditionally. I think this double meaning is also there in the Hebrew. As human beings, our experience happens in linear time and is dualistic. Such is the challenge of dualism that this lyric (with the use of the future tense – ‘will’) suggests we have not yet created a holy enough space, and that God is not yet in-dwelling. But to say that God is not in-dwelling contradicts the mystical non-dualistic idea that God is eternally and universally present. Put another way, is the Shechinah already here, or must we still work towards helping bring about her arrival? Chant texts – or language generally – cannot easily express dualism and non-dualism simultaneously. Sitting with this lyric, I then realised that ‘You will live with us’ does not necessarily mean that God is not already living with us. So maybe dualism and non-dualism can both be found in this lyric …

My final decision was to go with version 4. Chanting this version repeatedly to my music, I felt there was something poetic in the combination of words and music that expressed what I had been discovering with my head and heart as I ‘soaked’ myself in this verse from Torah. And it had the advantage that it could be sung collectively by a group of people, or with a slight adjustment, become a personal, private prayer: “I’ll make You a holy home, and You will live with me.” For me, with version 4 being adaptable to ‘we’ or ‘I’, this verse and chant has become a way into singing both an experience of sacred community, and an experience of sacred intimacy. We move towards God, and God moves towards us. Or is it the other way around? Who knows? But I do think that this verse is something about meeting each other half way.

The ‘holiness project’

We are told several things about holiness:

  • “You shall be holy (k’doshim); for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)
  • “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (goi kadosh).” (Ex. 19:6)
  • “Let them build me a holy place (mikdash), and I will dwell within/between/among them.” (Ex. 25:8)
  • “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (l’kadsho).” (Ex. 20:7)
  • [to Moses] “the place on which you stand is holy ground (admat kodesh).” (Ex. 3:5)

So, God is holy; we are to be holy, be a holy nation, and make a holy place for God to live within/between/among us; the earth is made holy by God; and time can be made holy. All of these are part of what I call the ‘holiness project’ that is fundamental to Judaism.

As I sing these words of the chant, I feel both love (ohev) and fear (yirah – ‘awe)’. Yes, I yearn to create holiness in my own home, my marriage, my heart, my friendships, my work, my community – and to create a holy place for God. And the music is there to express the love I have, and feel, and that I want to put into this both as intention and in practical terms.

At the same time, I remember what Heschel [1] wrote: “Words of prayer do not fade. They remain alive in the holy dimension. Words of prayer are commitments. We stand for what we utter.” That is scary. I am struck by the enormity of this ‘holiness project’, and how easy it is to get it wrong, and not live up to its ideals. Sometimes, I would prefer to run away, admit defeat, and declare myself unequal to the challenge. But, in the Ethics of the Ancestors (Pirket Avot 2:16), we are told: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” And, as my beloved rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (zt”l) often said, “The only way we can get it together is together!” Truly, it cannot be done alone, but must, and can only, be achieved in community, with others.

Because of its text, this chant can be used in a variety of contexts: the opening of any service, perhaps especially at Shabbat (including mincha); community building; the dedication of a synagogue; dedication of a home (chanukat habayit); wedding; with parsat terumah; and as a private reflection. My hope is that singing these words (Hebrew or English) to this music, both in private meditation, and in community, will help strengthen us to make the holiness project real in thought, word and deed.


[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1954) Man’s Quest for God, copyright Susannah Heschel 1996, p.26

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2 comments on “V’asu Li Mikdash and the ‘holiness project’
  1. Thank you, Alexander!
    Beautiful round and interpretation of this verse of Torah.
    Is there sheet music available for purchase?
    I am considering it for shabbat services next week, using both the Hebrew lyric and English.
    Sounds like your recording is from a midi. My band this coming week will include piano, violin, percussion and guitar.

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