I’d like to begin today by reading to you something almost prophetic written around 150 years ago by the great rabbi and Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“If I had the power,” he writes, “I would … close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.” (“Introduction by Translator” to Horeb, “The Classification of the Mitzvoth,” p.1xix)
Rabbi Hirsch was the chief rabbi of Frankfurt, Germany in the mid-19th century. In this dramatic passage, he was lamenting the fact that synagogues had become too central in Judaism. That people felt, “that they could be a Jew in synagogue, and a gentile on the street.” That in creating beautiful synagogues and hiring dynamic and eloquent rabbis, they had stopped looking inward for more spirituality and were expecting others to lift them up. Rabbi Hirsch realized that the only way his community would take ownership of their Judaism was by closing the synagogues down.
But of course, this was hyperbole, it was his dramatic way of making a point. We would never close our shuls down!
In March of 2020, Rabbi Hirsch’s words came true. Granted, not the way he imagined, but it happened. We closed – or were forced to close our synagogues. How did we do?
Did we live up to the rest of his vision? Did our prayers become more personal because we were not rushed, and no cantor was davening for us? Or did we stop davening entirely?
Did we, in the absence of regular classes and sermons study more on our own, making our homes into mini-temples and centers of spiritual growth, or did we spend our evenings and free time distracting our minds to escape the stress?
Did we bring more Judaism into our lives or did we drift away without our spiritual anchor?
I imagine if we were to go around this room right now, the answers would be quite varied. We’d also have to include answers from the many people who are not here; some because they could not be and some because shul, over these past months, lost some of its appeal. In place of an open discussion, I’ll share with you my experience without a shul. Some of you may relate and others I am sure will not.
For me… honestly… I loved it. Really.
No, it was not relaxing. I have never been so busy with shul and community related issues in my life, and yes, we had a baby during this time. Mazel Tov! I look forward to having a kiddush we could all attend one day celebrating the simcah. I did not love it because it was stress-free. It was anything but. I loved it because I enjoyed the corner of my dining room where I could talk to Hashem at my own pace. I loved it because with my children’s schools struggling to educate over Zoom, I had to bring more Jewish content to our Shabbos table. I loved it because when I prepared for Zoom classes and took calls on my front lawn, (the office was closed,) I got to wave and say hello to neighbors I never knew and the many other people walking or driving by.
Now I recognize that my experiences are not universal, but it forced me to question something Rabbi Hirsch did not anticipate. What happens when you close the shuls and then you open them, and people do not want to return? What happens when people have not been in a community setting for so long that they adapt to it – and kind of like it? What happens when people receive a bill in the mail for synagogue dues, and they ask themselves, why? Why do I need this? What happens when people find their spirituality elsewhere or after being away for so long, do not have any desire for spirituality at all? What happens then?
I have to tell you, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of people who signed up for services over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Almost 300 people here today! And – I was touched beyond words at the generous donations that came pouring forth from virtually everyone in our Ner Tamid community to ensure that our beloved shul stays open. But it begs the question – why? Why is this place so important to you? What does it do for you? What role does this building play in our Jewish lives and do we still need it? In a time and place where we can livestream every class, where every Jewish book is translated, where so many of our children attend Jewish schools, where spirituality is in vogue and prayer can be so personal, what are we here for? What is this institution called the synagogue that we are supporting?
Where, when and why synagogues first originated is a matter of intense scholarly debate. Dr. Rachel Hachlili, one of the leading scholars on the topic suggests the following: “The synagogue as an assembly, a gathering place for local communities, was established already in the time of the (second) Temple existence, but the synagogue as an institution, with its characteristic features, forms, customs and rituals, was not yet standardized and canonized. It developed into an official Jewish place of worship only after the destruction of the Temple.” In other words, Dr. Hachlili suggests that over time, the shul evolved to meet the different needs of the Jewish People.
Similarly, the Maharal of Prague suggests that the two temples that stood in Jerusalem, one from the 9th century BCE to the 5th, and the second temple, which stood from the 4th century BCE to the 1st, each served a different purpose. The first temple, he writes, was a place of Hashra’at haShechina, a home for the Divine Presence. It was a place of open miracles and spiritual wonders. The second temple, which was missing some of the holy artifacts, such as the Holy Ark, that second temple never captured the same spiritual splendor of the first. Instead the second temple was a place for Jews to gather. Starting in the 5th century BCE, Jews were starting to disperse all over the world, and so the temple in Jerusalem was the great meeting point, ensuring that the bond between brothers and sisters remained intact.
What both the Maharal and Dr. Hachlili are saying is that houses of worship, be it a Bais Hamikdash, a temple, or a shul, have changed and developed with the needs of the times. Maybe it’s time that the role of the synagogue evolves again.
To be honest, I think it already evolved, but Covid has made us more aware of the change. You see, the synagogue of our youth is dead. The synagogue where you go to watch a chazzan perform and a rabbi entertain, that does not speak to the of our generation, the culture of the 21st century. We’re not into being spectators, we all want a piece of the action. We’re also more comfortable as Jews in society, accepted everywhere in any role, so we no longer need a shul for our social outlets. And Sunday Hebrew schools are a relic of the past so it’s no longer about the children.
This question of what shul is all about is obviously deeply personal. Shul is what I do for a living, isn’t it? And I’ve been thinking a lot these past months about what I do, but more importantly, about what we do here, together. Do we need shuls? Do we need this shul? I vacillated these months, some days believing that shul era is behind us, long live the backyard minyan. But ultimately, I concluded that we do need shuls. Not only do we need shul, but we need more shuls like this one. And to be clear, this is not an infomercial about our shul and who we are. It’s a call to action on what we need to do and who we could be.
#1) It is true, in 2020, spirituality can be accessed in so many places. At work, on your phone, or on a mountaintop. A lot is gained when spirituality becomes so diffused, but something is also lost. When everything can be sacred then nothing is sacred.
The many rules of a synagogue – you cannot eat in a synagogue, non-essential conversations should not be taking place in a synagogue, you cannot walk through a synagogue as a shortcut, etc. etc. – What these rules do is create a space where we can experience awe and reverence, feelings which are in short demand in this day and age. Respect is no longer a value; it’s anti-egalitarian, it’s backward, or so they say. Everyone is a thought leader one day, canceled the next. Irreverence is celebrated, nothing is sacred. But then you go to shul –
You put on special clothing. You are quiet and you listen, at least for a few minutes. You stand up with attention when the Ark is opened. You lovingly kiss the sacred Torah scrolls. You think about G-d.
I struggle to properly define the word kedusha, holiness. But I can tell you that this experience is holy. And we could use some reminders of holiness, of the truly sacred in our frenetically-paced, cynical, and irreverent world. That’s one thing that shul can create and give us that isn’t easily found outside; a special place for you to connect to G-d.
#2) Just like the second temple in Jerusalem was not able to capture the spirituality of the first, it’s not always easy to tap in to the spiritual; not always easy to remind ourselves that a shul is the house of the L-rd. The Maharal taught us that the second temple in Jerusalem stood for a different reason, a far more accessible reason, and that is community.
You know, when I was first interviewed for this job, some people were kind of worried about me, the fanatic religious man that I am ?. In one of the many interviews I had with the search committee, one woman asked me, “Do you think your opinions will change over time?”
And I remember people yelling her down. “What kind of silly question is that?” But you know what? My opinions did change over time about many things. And you know why? Because these past eight years, we’ve been talking to one other about some of the most important topics in the world; timeless topics, current events, our lives. I’ll say something and you’ll challenge me. Or I’ll challenge you. And through this ongoing dialogue, we grow.
I don’t think I would have changed as much as I did if I had these conversations with you online. It’s only because we share a rich and warm relationship that we can see a good person who has opinions very different than our own.
And this is true whether or not we engage in debate or even discussions with one another. The fact that there are good, fine people who I see and know, who have opinions very different than mine about so many different things – not just politics! – that makes me pause and think and question. Name me one other place in your life, where this exists.
And it’s more than that. Community is more than just a place where different ideas are shared. To be part of a community means you are living for something greater than yourself. People complain from time to time that we need more classes or more events, and they are usually right – we could always be doing more. But the truth is, if you want a shul with the best programming and non-stop classes, and awesome kiddushes – this is not your place. I could find you a new spiritual home. Thank G-d, there are plenty in Baltimore.
You know what this place is, you know what Ner Tamid is, it’s a place where people come not to take but to give. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, the people of Ner Tamid do not ask what the shul can do for them, they ask what they can do for the shul. In too many shuls around the world, people think that when synagogues say “services” it means that they are providing a service, like internet connection or free babysitting, only here it’s a place to daven mincha or it’s a place to listen to a lecture or to hear a Chazzan. That’s not what service means. Services means we come to serve; we come to serve G-d and our fellow man.
People here get that. The incredible generosity that allowed us to be here today, the volunteerism, the hours and hours and hours that people have put in, the initiatives that have kept us connected, it is truly overwhelming. I wish I could just stand here and thank each person. It would not end. As someone who loves and breathes this shul, I am overwhelmingly grateful to each of you for what you do.
But I’d venture to say that the people who have given of themselves also got something out of it, that they got a lot out of it. The joy, that sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment. You know what that is? It’s the magical feeling of living beyond oneself – of being part of a community. That’s also something you cannot easily replicate.
And that brings me to the final feature of what it means to be a part of a shul and a shul community. Being part of a community means that we are all connected. Being part of a community means we care or should care about one another.
In our Haftorah today, we read how G-d heard the cries of our matriarch, Rachel. Rachel mivakah al bonehah. It does not say, bocheh, that she cries for her children. Mivakah means that she causes others to cry for her children. You see, Rachel was so connected to everyone that she caused them all to cry when she did. When we are connected with one another, we cry for one another. When we are one, then your joy is my joy and your sadness is mine as well.
These past few months have been some of the saddest months of our collective life. So many tears have been shed. Did you hear them?
Did you hear the cry of the singles who ate alone on Pesach and are probably eating alone today? Did you hear the cry of the divorcee who was overwhelmed by his or her children and managing custody while practicing social distancing? Did you hear the cry of the elderly man or woman who have been prisoners in their own home and felt like they had nothing to live for? Did you hear the cry of those who felt trapped in relationships? Of those who lost their jobs?
There are about 280 people in shul this Rosh Hashana – which is amazing. Last year we had 430 people in attendance. That means that another 150 people are at home. Being part of a community means hearing their cries, at the very least, reaching out to them and letting them know they were missed.
I’ve received the letters from Jewish institutions begging for financial support because they’re afraid they will not survive this pandemic. I’ve read the articles questioning the value of the synagogue in the modern era. As I mentioned, during these past months, I’ve had my own doubts. But today, I am more confident than ever in the future of the synagogue, especially this one.
I am confident that despite the great irreverence on the street, that we, even when we’re able to move our seats a little closer, and when we’re here more often, will still try to talk less, and will daily or weekly, feel the reverence, the G-dliness, that only a shul can generate.
I am confident that despite the world becoming more and more polarizing, that we will continue to share ideas – that we will learn from one another, and will remain a beacon of nuance, of diversity, and of mutual respect.
I am confident that we will continue to ask not what the community can do for me, but what I can do for it, and that we will feel greater by being part of something great. We will serve!
And I am confident that in a world where loneliness is the true plague, where parents feel estranged from their children, where most people have no one to confide in, and feel like they’re invisible, that we will grow in our awareness of the people sitting beside us, when they’re here, and especially when they’re not, that we will breathe new meaning into the notion of a kehila, a community in which your tears of joy cause me to smile and your tears of sadness break my heart.
Rav Hirsch’s words came true, our shuls closed down this year. But the shuls that closed down had closed down decades before; that shul was dead. Let us commit, this year, to building a new shul, a space for awe, holiness, and G-dliness, a place of community, a place of being part of something bigger than ourselves and a place where can we hear the cries of those in our midst. And may G-d bless us, as a community, with the sweetest year, filled with health, with hope, and with heart.