Today is May 28, 2023 -
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There is a school of thought among the sages that the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is absolutely perfect, emanating directly from the mouth of the Almighty. That is to say each and every word that is written in the Torah is necessary. This particular thesis is sorely pressed whenever there appears to be a redundancy found within its pages. So listen to the following verses in this morning’s portion.
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver and copper, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goat’s hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins and acacia wood.”
Now listen to a brief selection of what we shall read next month from another Torah portion called Vayakhel also in the Book of Exodus. “This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them – gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen and goat’s hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins and acacia wood.”
If you believe that there never was any extraneous material in the Torah and that every word teaches something new, it begs the question, why do we need this impeccably accurate repetition? What on earth could a repetition of a list of materials teach us?
To resolve this issue the rabbis decided that the sin of the Golden Calf and God’s subsequent forgiveness actually took place on Yom Kippur. Based on that tradition Rashi sees the events of Va-ya-khel occur the day after Yom Kippur after the events of Ki Tissa. Moses therefore urges the people to renew their relationship with God by keeping the Sabbath and contributing to the tabernacle. Hence the need for the repetition! What had been predicted by the Almighty in Terumah will be implemented in Parshat Vayakhel. Therefore both accounts are necessary.
Our sages also believed that we should renew our relationship with God following the alienation of the Golden calf through the keeping of Shabbat and contributing funds towards the building of a Mishkan – a Tabernacle. These are timeless activities. We are still celebrating Shabbat and we continue to support sacred institutions. But there is something equally necessary for the renewal of this relationship. In the Bible one had to renew one’s relationship with God amidst a community. That is why Moses assembles the whole Israelite community to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mount Sinai and devolved into divisiveness with the sin of the Golden Calf. And that is a critical point for us today as well.
One of the problems presently facing in Judaism is the decline of the more liberal denominations. Here is a quotation from an article printed not-too-long-ago concerning this phenomenon. It begins with the following words. “Conservative Judaism’s membership rolls are in free fall. According to a strategic plan for renewal issued by the denomination’s congregational arm, the number of families served by synagogues belonging to what was once American Judaism’s leading stream has shrunk by 14% since 2001. In the denomination’s Northeast region, the number of families has dropped by 30%.”
Anyone living in this section of the country would be hard-pressed to debate such findings. With a few exceptions notwithstanding we have witnessed a shrinking of numbers of most conservative congregations. As a matter of fact, during my search for a new pulpit one of the few things that almost every synagogue I looked at had in common was a decline in their membership across-the-board and we see that this is not only true of Conservative Judaism but of the other liberal denominations as well.
Furthermore we have witnessed the growing influence of synagogues without walls, virtual synagogues and other contraptions that are technologically linked to the Internet and are supposed to fulfill the needs of a traditional synagogue. Recent articles cite new strategies with voluntary dues structures to entice new members and novel ways to access Judaism. For example you can hire a tutor for your child to become a Bar Mitzvah via the internet and you don’t need the membership structure of a synagogue to support that. Funerals today even take place without the physical presence of mourners. The logic being that it is too difficult for people who are so spread out to reunite at a time of grief. Easier to merely skype a eulogy and have the relatives watch the funeral service on their Ipads or their smartphones!
Now, while convenience and expense are necessary considerations there is a considerable drawback with this sort of thinking and that is because there is a communal aspect to Judaism that is perhaps our faith’s most vital contributory factor. The community , the fellowship and the physical closeness is what makes Judaism live.
Here are some words by Michael Fishbane regarding the vitality and significance of the synagogue. He writes the following in a book called Sacred Attunements, “Synagogue is foundational. It is a second community transcending the family unit. The synagogue is a beit kneset, a house of gathering; it is a place for the spirit and the people, a community of families, even a metafamily. For Jewish theology, the synagogue is the eternal Sinai in communal space – for it is the place where the primary words of the covenant are recited and interpreted before the people. The synagogue is also the space of tradition, ideally permeated by teachings of God’s reality and realized presence and infused by the values of sanctity and sanctification. Speech here is distinct: Scripture is declaimed by cantillated chants, and prayers are uttered in communal recitation, punctuated by the conjoint avowal of “amen.” In times of exile, the synagogue is wholeness and preparation; it is a community in anticipation of peace and fellowship and a place where gifts are bestowed and received. In the synagogue the community lives with deepest density, suffused by the memory of the dead, the absent members of this living communion. Those of the past are recalled daily and annually, according to ancient custom; and the entire community assents with “amen” to their recollection.”
Now while his literary style may be flowery Fishbane’s theme is paramount. We still need real synagogues with real rabbis, real cantors and real educators because they, better than any other institution, can promote a sense of community. The kind of authentic caring that takes place in a synagogue simply cannot be replicated through technology. You can’t touch another person or look into another someone’s eyes and understand what he is lacking in his life through a poke on Facebook or a session of skype. Yes it can be helpful but it is definitely not the same. When all is said and done we still need Judaism and we still need synagogues such as this one with real people like you and like me, real people who really care.
How then do we promote the Judaism we love? Through fervent appeal to our family and friends who are not yet affiliated. We have to convince them that their lives would be richer, more complete and more meaningful with such community. It doesn’t matter if they don’t think of themselves as religious, the simple truth is that if they are human then they need community and there is still no finer and more stable community for Jews of all stripes today than the synagogue. We who know this must now spread the word.