What a Year This Has Been

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

What a year this has been! I’m almost not sure where it has gone, except that I can look around and see the clear evidence of progress all around. I know that for many of us “first fatigue” may be starting to set in. We had our first BBQ, our first service in our new building, our first Bar Mitzvah, our first slichot, we walked our Torah, dedicated our building, soon we will have our first day of religious school, and of course tonight we officially begin our first year with our first High Holy Days. Soon enough things will no longer be the first. Soon enough the power of newness will wear off. But while our synagogue remains new, and we are still in the midst of firsts, we should joyfully celebrate them all.

I want to back up though, and acknowledge the incredible hard work that went into getting us to this moment. We could not have come to this moment in this space without the crucial work of building. But that work was not easy. For anyone who has built their own home, you know about the unending possible choices, the unending possible disasters—some of which occur, the myriad ways that small sums of money suddenly can take you into large sums of money. How difficult such building can be on family life. We experienced all of that on a larger and communal scale this past year. You all committed yourselves to this project. Those that brought joy and excitement to this project, those who donated your finances to this project, and those of you who concerned yourselves with all of the details, who worried over each aspect of this project. Someone had to ask and answer and sweat over questions like, how much we were paying for wall outlets, where we would put the wall outlets, did we have enough wall outlets, what color wall outlets would we have, and afterwards, we really should have put a wall outlet over there… As well as the much bigger decisions. The time, money, and talent that came from the members of this community as well as the energy, good and bad, the joys and disappointments along the way, all of it added up to this wonderful space we now can fill with our songs, our prayers, our study, and our good works.

We have spent a lot of time this past month talking about what it took to get here, and thanking people for making it happen, but it bears saying again. Thank you to everyone who dedicated yourselves in one way or many ways to make this synagogue a reality. It was not easy nor was it without stress, but what we have built together is extraordinary and our entire community is deeply grateful. I am deeply grateful.

Several weeks ago, during our first Shabbat service here in our building, I read a list of rules that a synagogue requires. For those of you who were here, I apologize, but this list is too good not to repeat. As you will see, we have followed the rules for a Synagogue according to the Talmud quite closely, they are as follows:

The responsibility of building a synagogue rests collectively on all members of a Jewish community. The obligation devolves on a community when there are ten adult Jewish men of bar mitzvah age. (Orach Chaim., 150:1; Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim, 1)

The funding for building a synagogue should come from the community members, and should be collected on the basis of each individual’s financial means. If the community can’t afford to purchase or build a synagogue, they must rent a space for prayer.(ibid.) Conversely, if they can afford to buy or build a synagogue, they should not suffice with renting. (Aruch HaShulchan, ibid.,1)

As appropriate for a home devoted to worshipping G‑d, the synagogue should be built in a very beautiful manner.(Zohar 2:59b)

Technically, the synagogue should be the tallest building in the city.(Shabbat 11a) In modern cities, however, this is not practical. As such, it is permitted for one to build one’s house taller than the synagogue—though it is preferable to refrain from doing so when possible.(Mishnah Berurah)

The synagogue should have windows (Mishnah Berurah)that face Jerusalem. (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 90:4, based on Daniel 6:11) Ideally there should be (at least [Piskei Teshuvot 150, note 102])) twelve windows, but it is not necessary for all of them to face Jerusalem. (Shulchan Aruch HaRav)

A room or hallway should separate the door to the street from the door to the actual sanctuary. This allows the congregants the opportunity to compose themselves before entering the sanctuary. (Shulchan Aruch HaRav)

The entrance to the sanctuary should be on the opposite side of the direction in which people pray (Code of Jewish Law, see Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim 27) (i.e., in countries west of Israel, in which people pray facing east, the entrance to the synagogue should be in the west).

So you see, in our construction we have been able to meet these requirements quite well. But I want to talk about something other than the walls tonight, I want to talk about the windows. But first a story:

The Mirror

A mirror and a window are both made of glass, both used for looking into. This story clearly teaches that we are very different people when we spend our time looking at our own reflection rather than looking outside and seeing what is happening around us.

Last week for Slichot, many of us were here to watch the film “God in the Box.” We also had the wonderful opportunity to speak with the filmmaker himself Nathan Lang. Nathan set up his box in several cities throughout the country and asked people to go in and answer some questions about God knowing that they were being filmed. There were some very wonderful moments in the film. A woman from Alabama sits down in the box and is relieved when she sees that the questions really do just ask what she believes about God. She looks up and says, “I was so worried that when I got into this box they were gonna tell me about Jesus, and I thought Oh good Lord!” That’s my favorite quote from the movie—it’s even better when you hear her say it. That evening there were some questions about the box itself and if there were other people who seemed like they might be afraid of what was going to happen when they got inside the box. Inside that very closed up windowless space people were able to really speak deeply about what they believed. They were able to share their frustrations about religion, their discomforts and disbeliefs about God, as well as their joyful loving expressions of God. In Las Vegas an Elvis impersonator sang “Love me Tender” to his bride in the box outside of a wedding chapel, and said, “that’s God, love.” At the end of the movie different Synagogues, churches and mosques are pictured, and Nathan’s voice asks, what are each of these if not a box. And we all left that evening agreeing that something powerful happened inside that box that was a kind of prayer, that brought God’s presence into that space. Now there wasn’t a window in that box exactly, but there was a mirror that faced the participants, but on the other side it was a window so that the video camera could capture what they were saying. Even though they knew there was a camera on the other side of the mirror, the people were essentially speaking to their own reflections. But there was great power in giving people the space to reflect on their own beliefs and speak them out loud. God was in that box with them. If our synagogue can be the kind of space where people share their beliefs knowing they are safe to do so, then our mission here will be accomplished.

When we were in the early stages of designing this space, a comment was made at one of the meetings that if congregants could spend services looking out the windows they might not pay any attention at all to what I was doing or saying on the bima. Now while I do hope you pay some attention to what I’m doing up here on the bima, I understand very well that prayer and meditation come in many forms.

I grew up in a synagogue (Temple Sinai of Rochester, NY), where the ceiling was glass, and everything behind the bima was windows. Our Ark was a free standing structure that seemed to float in front of the window. The synagogue was located in the middle of a small forest, and outside of the sanctuary there were two tall stone pillars that were visible from the inside. Not only were we able to see the seasons change from our seats in the pews, but some of my favorite services were the evenings when I could look up and watch the snow fall on the ceiling. That space made me love being Jewish, it made me love coming to services. If our beautiful view of the wetlands and the migrating birds can do that for someone else, then I believe our mission here has been accomplished.

But of course the message of the story wasn’t just that it’s good to look out at beautiful scenery when you look out the window. The window is there so you can see what is happening to the people and to the world outside our walls.

In some ways, looking at me and only paying attention to what I am doing up here on the bima is like looking into the mirror. If I’m doing a good job, then I am reflecting back what is going on in our community, what is going on for each of us. But when we look out the window, we can be engaged in something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves.

Earlier I told you that the Talmud teaches that a synagogue should have windows. What it says specifically is, “One should only pray in a house which has window, as it says, ‘And Daniel would enter his house, where there were open windows in his upper chamber facing Jerusalem; three times a day he would kneel and pray.’ (Daniel 6:11)” (Berachot 34b) The rabbis decide that since we have the example of Daniel, who was rescued by God because of his great piety, praying daily in his upstairs room where the windows were, that then is the example for all of us.

Rav Kook one of the famous rabbis living in Israel during the time when it was part of the Ottomon Empire wrote this commentary to that text from the Talmud:

Prayer is an intensely introspective activity, but it should not lead us to belittle the value of being part of the world around us. If meditation and private prayer lead us to withdraw from the outside world, then we have missed prayer’s ultimate goal. The full import of prayer cannot be properly realized by those secluded in a monastery, cut off from the world. Prayer should inspire us to take action for just and worthy causes. For this reason, the Sages taught that we should pray in a room with windows, thus indicating our ties and moral obligations to the greater world.

We obviously have moral obligations to the greater world. We are commanded to feed the hungry and heal the sick. To care for the orphan and the widow and the stranger. We are taught to love our neighbors and to honor our parents. If this space and this building can help us to better do those things then again I believe our mission here has been accomplished.

Our space is holy space, it is holy because it fulfills all of the building requirements of synagogue space, it is holy because here we seek to create safe space for people to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs and to share those openly with each other. It is holy space, because here we can be inspired by what we see outside, by the beauty and wonder of our natural world, and it is holy space because here we will be reminded that when we see hardship and difficulty outside our windows we will be moved to action to make conditions better for those who sit within these walls and for those outside of these walls. I pray that in the coming year 5773 we will accomplish all of those missions. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.