If the incident of the golden calf, which we read last week, teaches us anything, it teaches that the people needed something tangible to focus their attention in prayer. Clearly an image of God or some other figure was not permitted. In fact, we will see later in the book of Numbers, Moses will make a bronze image of a snake to save the people from a plague and it will have to be destroyed centuries later when the snake becomes an item of veneration by the people.
The Israelites need something visible, something in the realm of space so they know where to look when they pray. In this week’s parsha, we see the People of Israel giving their gold and jewelry to build a Mishkan, a portable sanctuary that will go with them as they travel in the desert. The people will not be permitted to ever see the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark that would rest in the Holy of Holies, but they would know that the presence of God was inside that tent and it would give them a place to direct their praise, petitions and thanks to God.
Over the millennium, we have grown to better understand the nature of this God that has no physical form and without any parallel in the physical world. We have come to understand that no matter where we are and no matter how far we are from sacred space, God is still with us. We know that God is all around us and inside of us. And yet… we still direct our eyes and our hearts when we pray, to the front of the synagogue, and if there is no synagogue, we direct our gaze up to the sky, perhaps a vestige of our childhood belief that, up there somewhere, is an old man with a beard who wants to hear our prayer.
As long as Jews have built synagogues, we have tried to create inspiring prayer spaces. Ancient Jews decorated their synagogues with elaborate mosaics on the floor. In Eastern Europe, a shteible was any small room where people prayed, but there was also a grand Synagogue in the cities, where, on Shabbat and Holidays, the community would gather for formal worship. Many of these synagogues were elaborate structures with great works of art inside. Here in America, we have created grand synagogues with soaring ceilings, stained glass and unique artwork. Some of the greatest American architects have tried their hand at creating a spiritual atmosphere in which we can pray.
Take a look around this sanctuary. It is a beautiful place to pray. The windows let in a mixture of natural light and the hues of the stained glass. The seats are comfortable, the bima is easy to see and the sound system brings all the beautiful notes of our Hazzan to life. The entire room calls our attention to the front where our eyes are lifted to see the Ner Tamid, burning in front of the Ark. Everything about this room is designed to inspire us to words of prayer.
But if I were to ask, which of the elements of our sanctuary is the most important parts, where should be invest our resources to improve our prayer experience, what would you answer? Should we invest in our bima, updating our ark and bima furnishings to new and inspiring forms? Perhaps we should make our prayer space more accessible for those who enter with disabilities, so that they too can be inspired by this space? Should we change the colors of the walls, the carpets or the ceiling? Should we improve our entry foyer or buy new doors for the sanctuary? Funds are limited, of all the things in this room, which should be the first to be improved?
I often enter this sanctuary when there is nobody here. The lights are off and only the Ner Tamid lights my path. I can tell you, when the room is empty, it is just that, a big empty room. The most important part of our synagogue is not the bima, windows or seats. The most important part is the people sitting in the seats.
Without you sitting here, nothing in this room would make any sense. All of the beauty and all of the furnishings are designed for people to appreciate them. We are the most vital part of our synagogue. The Hazzan can sing and I can preach on this bima, but without you, the congregation, it is only an exercise in futility. It is you who inspires us. It is each and every one of you that makes Temple Emeth a place of inspiration.
I mention all of this because we, all too often, come here and insist that others stay out of “our space”. People get angry if someone else should sit in their seat. We don’t take too well to changes in our synagogue. Each part of the building has a story to tell, and we find comfort in arriving here and finding everything just the way we remember it.
Over the past weeks, as discussions about our merger with Anshe Shalom began, there has been a lot of discussion about what would happen to our building, to our property and to our sanctuary. Will we get to stay in this building or go to the other synagogue? Where will we sit for the holidays? Where will we park for the holidays? How can I feel at home in a different place than here?
One of the things I like to do as I travel around the country, is to visit the daily minyan in different places. One of the things you learn about daily minyan is that what is important are people. If ten adult Jews don’t walk through that door, then nobody can pray. When prayer is that intimate, we learn to take notice when someone is not there one morning. We learn to care about those who join us in worship and to care about their family. At minyan, we look out for each other, help each other, learn from each other and celebrate with each other.
The reality of our congregation is that no matter where we are, no matter what may happen, in the end, we are all about people. Terrible things could happen to our building, (God forbid), fire, flood, hurricane, but as long as we are together, as long as we gather together to pray, to learn and to share good times, we are a community. If we were to leave this location to build anew in a different part of town, with a different floor plan and different space, as long as we are together, we will still be “home”.
If we merge with Anshe Shalom (and we are still not in the “sure thing” stage), but if we merge, there may be good financial, logistical and practical reasons to leave this building and gather together down the street. If we do, it may be a different building and a different location, but as long as we are with our friends, we are where we belong. No one knows what the future will bring, but as long as we are together, we can face that future with strength and security. Anyplace where the members of Temple Emeth gather, that is where Temple Emeth will be.
I am, like you, very curious about how the two congregations will resolve the many issues that the future will bring. There are certainly many things upon which there is general agreement, but there are significant challenges as well. Some of them affect the members of both congregations. These are serious issues and will require some very careful negotiations to resolve. Combining two different congregations, making new friends and establishing new habits, these can be very challenging. But the issues of space and logistics, these should be the easiest to resolve.
So if your seat is broken, if the carpet needs cleaning, or if the walls need painting, that is all easy to fix. But if, after a whole year together, we don’t know who is sitting in front of us or behind us … that is a major problem. A crisis is not about the building, it is about whether or not visitors feel welcome when they attend our service for the first time. What is important is not space, but relationships, friendships and concern for our neighbors. If we can master that in our congregation, we can handle any other issue the merger might bring.
May God help us see past the physical to see our fellow Jews, to pray with them, to welcome them, and to share holy time with them. If we can do this, we can face the future with certainty that our holy community will be eternal.
May God be with us on the path to our future as we say….AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM.