So, I invited this guy to make an appearance in shul instead of waiting for next Yom Kippur.
His reply? “Rabbi, I hate organized religion.”
“Nothing to worry about,” I assured him. “At our shul, we are totally disorganized.”
Seriously, though, why come to shul? Why not pray in the garden surrounded by the beauty of nature? Or why not pray when watching a glorious sunrise or sunset? Someone told me that when she meditates in the lotus position in her garden, she feels much more spiritual than she’s ever felt in shul.
And since prayer is meant to be a spiritual exercise, why the need for a physical house of prayer at all?
These are legitimate questions.
In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of God’s commandment to Moses to build the world’s first synagogue: “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
But why does God need a physical building for us to interact with him? Isn’t He all over?
From a simple perspective, we need fixed prayers or “organized religion” because if we waited for that extraordinary moment of natural inspiration from the sublime sunset, we might be waiting for a while. Quite a while.
Such moments are rare. And even when we do experience them, we are not necessarily the gifted natural poets who could break out into spontaneous song and prayer. If we waited for those rare opportunities, we might never pray at all.
And then there’s the fact that the synagogue is called a beit knesset, a “house of assembly.” It’s not only a house of prayer. A shul is where people gather and form a community, a kehillah. The traditional minyan takes place within the confines of a congregation, a gathering, an assembly or what we call a community.
The petition of a community is far more powerful and effective than the petition of a single, private individual. The mayor, the governor or the president is far more likely to take notice of a petition signed by a large group of people than the isolated request of a lone individual. So too in prayer. A congregation has clout.
As for the question of a physical building, indeed God is all over. “There is no place devoid of His Presence,” says the Zohar. But do we feel His Presence, or is it something reserved for the angels? How can we relate to Him when He seems so far away from our physical condition and worldly situation?
How do we bring God down from the lofty heavens to the earthly and the everyday?
Inside the four walls of a holy house of prayer, we stand a better chance of feeling more connected, of being able to have a conversation with God, of touching the heavenly.
That’s what the very first sanctuary built by Moses achieved. It brought heaven down to earth. It made a space for the infinite in a finite, man-made structure. God said to us that if we made Him a dwelling, He would come down and dwell among us. And He did.
It was quite a feat. For mortal men and women to build a house to contain the infinite Godly presence was no mean achievement. Even King Solomon, the builder of our first Holy Temple in Jerusalem, marveled at the idea that “the heavens cannot contain You and the house that I built will?”
In fact, there were many miracles that occurred in the Holy Temple of old on a regular basis. The Mishna lists no less than ten obvious ones that took place almost daily. To list just a few: The sacrificial meats never became putrid; no fly was ever seen in the slaughterhouse; and rain never extinguished the fire on the altar.
The Holy of Holies, which housed the Holy Ark in which resided the two Tablets of Testimony with the Ten Commandments, was absolute infinity in a confined, finite space. Why else would a High Priest who was unworthy not survive when he entered the Inner Sanctum on Yom Kippur? But such was the obvious otherworldly holiness in that exalted location.
For a finite space to be able to house the infinite is indeed nothing short of miraculous.
Sadly, we do not have a beit mikdash, a Holy Temple, in existence today. The closest we can get is the Western Wall. But every synagogue today is called mikdash me’at, a “mini-Temple.” And while we may not merit experiencing the openly revealed miracles of yesteryear, our shuls today do embody a little slice of heaven. When we pray to and connect with God, we too are bringing heaven down to earth.
Please G-d, we will come to shul, and we will engage with our Maker, and He will listen.
May all our prayers be answered.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.