This week’s Torah portion begins with Gd’s command: V’asu Li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham. (Make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you). The sages ask, why doesn’t the Torah say, “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it—in the sanctuary?” It’s because Gd resides not within the sanctuary so much, but within the heart of every person. You see, Gd doesn’t need a sanctuary to live in. Gd is everywhere. It was the people who needed a sanctuary—a place where they knew they could find Gd.
It’s like the Chasidic story of a child who sees his father walking out of the forest and asks him, “Tati, what were you doing in the forest?”
The father replied, “I was looking for Gd.”
The child asked: “Why did you have to go looking for Gd in the forest? Isn’t Gd the same everywhere?”
And the father responded, “Yes my child, Gd is the same everywhere, but I’m not.”
Yes, we are different in different places and so we need a sanctuary where we can find Gd. Renowned author Malcolm Gladwell was once asked at a Jewish event to give his thoughts on synagogue life—a strange question posed to someone who’s not Jewish. Gladwell explained that everyone has multiple “selves”: There is the person we are at work, the person we are at home, the person we are at a ball game and the person we are at a bar at midnight. Each person is, of course, one and the same person, but each “self” reflects a particular situation or social context. Everyone knows that children behave differently in school than they do at home…We have as many “selves,” and since behavior is shaped by the company we keep, then it becomes really important that we keep good company…we need to immerse ourselves in a place where we can be our “best selves,” where the social pressures and expectations are such that we become conditioned to be more compassionate, more patient, more inclusive, more generous...We need a place to bring our best self, to find that self if we have lost our way, and to surround ourselves with others engaged in the selfsame exercise.
Gd commanded us to make a sanctuary—whether it be the portable Mishkan used by the people in the desert after the Exodus, the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem or Shaarei Shamayim, our own shul—because Gd understood that every Jew needs a sacred center, a place that reminds us of the commanding voice of Sinai, a place that reminds us of the spark of Gd within ourselves and a place that reminds us of who we ought to be. The sanctuary becomes not only a sacred space to feel Gd’s presence, but a place where Jews could be good—together. Our world is getting more complex, not less. The quality of public discourse is getting worse, not better. We need a place that can remind us not how the world is, but how the world ought to be.
Recently a couple of people confirmed this for me. I ran into someone at Krogers who told me she loved coming to shul because, whatever the challenges she felt at work or home, she felt elevated just being here. It does feel special being here—does it not? And just yesterday I was speaking to another who had suffered a painful setback. He said, “Rabbi, I’ll be coming to shul this week.” The implication being that when the world comes unhinged, it’s to shul he turns to get his bearings. It’s because when we come to shul, in some way we are changed…and when we leave we’re inspired to do what we can to help change the world around us for the better. Wash, rinse, wash, rinse and repeat over and over again throughout a lifetime.
This week I got an email and then a follow-up call from a company called www.shulsigns.com. They make various shul signs for prayers, yahrzeits, simchas, holidays, etc. It reminded me of a discussion of shul signs for the entrance of a synagogue at a rabbinic conference. One rabbi said that at his shul they have this sign: “Welcome, we are happy to have you here.” Another one said his shul has this sign, which we definitely don’t need here: “No talking during the rabbi’s sermon.”
We don’t have many signs around our shul, so I thought of a sign I once suggested for our shul: “Buddy, this ain’t no bus station!” I took the idea from Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski who serves as medical director emeritus of the world famous “Gateway Rehab Center” of Pittsburgh which he founded. At the entrance to his group therapy room he placed this sign: “Buddy, this ain’t no bus station.” He explained: “A bus station is a place where a lot of people are together separately. It’s a place where everyone is going on a journey, but even though they may be in the same room, they’re just concerned with reaching their own personal destination.”
Dr. Twersky’s point is that his rehab center is not a bus station. It’s not a place where each person is only concerned with his or her own recovery. They must be interdependent. Each person’s progress depends on, and impacts on, everyone else’s. And, as Twerski says, “It really works. People in my drug clinic soon develop a real sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare.”
I think this sign is the shortest, simplest definition I know of what a shul is all about. And if I had my way, I might put up this sign at the entrance to Shaarei Shamayim: “Buddy, this ain’t no bus station.” Because what’s a shul really? It’s not a temporary assembly of people, who are all on different journeys, who may happen to sit next to each other for a while, but who are going different places. For sure we in Shaarei Shamayim are a diverse group, but we know better than anyone that our shul is an assembly of people who are on the same spiritual journey, who are ultimately going to the same place looking for Gd. That’s why we’re here today!
A shul can’t make your problems go away. If you need a job, we might not find you a job. If you’re looking to get married, we have a sanctuary and a rabbi for the ceremony, but we may not find you a mate. What we promise is to take you seriously. This isn’t a place where cripples leave their crutches behind and colostomy patients leave their drainage systems and walk out miraculously cured. This is a place where people leave their pain and their loneliness and walk out knowing that someone—as well as Gd—truly cares about them.
There are so many institutions in our lives that don’t take us seriously, that exploit our innocence, that answer our phone calls with a recording and our correspondence with a form letter. We desperately need this one place that exists for the purpose of caring about us.
Why then doesn’t every Jew belong to a shul? For one thing, we have become a culture of isolated people consumed by our devices, who may sometimes congregate in the same bus station, but who are all looking on our own screens and going different places by ourselves. Also, we have become a consumer society, and we shop for shuls as we would shop at Krogers or Publix or Whole Foods looking for the best price and features and asking what a shul can do for us. But a shul is not a supermarket. Once we join a shul we need to make it part of us and see what we can do for it.
I urge you to take membership in Shaarei Shamayim seriously. Let me plead with you who do not yet belong, to become a member. It’s never about money. If you can’t afford the dues you pay what you can afford. And for those who are members, I plead with you to not just be a name on the membership list, for Jews are not people who happen to be in the same bus station at the same time. We Jews are people who are all going on a journey, and who need to travel together if we are ever to find Gd.
At the end of next week’s Torah portion the Torah (Ex. 29:46) tells us the purpose of a house of Gd: “That they shall know that I am the Lrd their Gd, Who took them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in them, I am the Lrd their Gd.” It seems this verse is saying what Gd did to free the Jews from Egypt and then commanding them to build a sanctuary was to fulfill a divine need, which is to dwell in us!
So shul is not a place where Gd dwells, but it is a place where Gd looks to find us—and we’re here—as well as a place where we look to find Gd. Accordingly, Nachmanides on this verse tells us this is a “great secret!” May we journey together and find Gd. Amen!