Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            A couple of weeks ago we read in the Song of the Sea, "This is my God, and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2)."  This translation is problematic, because the Hebrew term I translated as glorify is anveihu, and this is the only time we see this expression in the Bible.  It could be related to the word noy, meaning beautify, or naveh, meaning house.  So, are we claiming to beautify God or house the Deity?  This week's parsha seems to answer the latter.  When the Midrash asks why God created this universe, it answers that God wanted a place to live in the lower realms.  We are privileged to have been given that assignment, when God tells us, "Make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst you (25:8)."  It's been pointed out by many commentaries that the building of the portable temple was similar to the creation of the world.  With the end of the six days of creation, it says, "And God completed on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work that He did.  And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it (Genesis 2:2-3)."  Similarly, when the mishkan was finished it says, "And Moses completed the work, So Moses blessed them, and you shall sanctify it and all its furnishings; thus it will become a holy thing (Exodus 40:33, 39:43, 40:9)."  We emulated God and earned our right to be called the image of God.  This finally brings me to this week's query.  Since the temples are so crucial to our relationship to God, how can we continue our spiritual lives without one?

            This has been a crucial question for Jews for many centuries, and its centrality doesn't go away.    I believe that there are two ways to go on this issue.  Let's try to understand the less well known approach first.  The beginning of a strategy to deal with this problem began in Babylonia during the ministry of Ezekiel (6th century BCE).  This great prophet of the exile told the Jews:  Thus said the Lord G-d:  I have indeed removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries and I have become to them a diminished sanctity in the countries whither they have gone (Ezekiel 11:6).  In the Talmud the expression I translated as diminished sanctity is mikdash ma'at, and Rabbi Yitzchak explains it as referring to the synagogues and study halls of Babylonia (Megilla 29a).  So, according to this interpretation of Ezekiel's pronouncement, we have replaced the Holy Temple in our lives by building these little temples in our midst.  We call them synagogues.

            This idea, that we can maintain the Temple's role in society with these places of worship, has its roots, I believe, in the enactments of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai (30-90 CE).  After the destruction of the second Temple, he decreed that certain practices which were unique to the Temple should be performed in the new home of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh.  For example, the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat was done to mimic the customs of the Temple.  This also seems to be the time period when the strict adherence to the times for prayer became enforced.  This was done to give people the feeling that the Divine service of the Temple was continuing even without the offerings.  We see this in the custom of reciting the verses about the appropriate sacrifices on Shabbat, holidays and Rosh Chodesh.  This strong identification that the local synagogue replaced the Temple inspired the custom in medieval Germany to comfort mourners in synagogues with the formula:  May He who caused His Name to dwell in this house console you, which had been used in the Temple.  Our formula, on the other hand, encourages us to lament the lack of Temple:  May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

            This declaration that we are all mourners for the destroyed and desecrated Temple brings us to the second point of view.  This opinion was forcefully presented by Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993).  We are all in constant mourning for the Temple; we remain disconsolate two millennia later.  This position is reinforced by many customs, like the breaking of the glass at weddings, tearing our shirt when seeing the Western Wall, and fasting on Tisha B'av.  Many Rabbis seemed to have believed, unlike Raban Yochanan ben Zakai, that Judaism absolutely requires a Temple.  This was, perhaps, the theological basis for the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE), against the Roman Empire, which was refusing to allow the rebuilding of the Temple. 

            Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that the fundamental human relationship with God is based upon crisis and distance.  Our greatest spiritual attainments are achieved through hardship.  This idea is expressed in many Psalms, when describing prayer, for example:  You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart (51:19), From dire straights, I call out to God (118:5), From out of the depths, I cry out to You, O Lord (130:1).  The act of prayer itself is described as coming from 'an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord (102:1).'  The Rav actually used this position to elucidate a famous controversy between the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) and the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270).  The Rambam wrote that the Torah obligation of prayer is to pray once a day.  While the Ramban wrote that the requirement is only in time of trouble.  However, the Rav reconciled the positions by stating that Maimonides would say that the normal existential condition of humans is one of crisis.  So, we're in trouble daily.

            If, as we stated earlier, God's greatest wish for this world is to maintain a Divine presence among these lower realms, then how can this best be achieved?  According to the first team, this is best accomplished by maintaining a place for God in our midst, either the Holy Temple or its surrogates, our synagogues.  However, according to the second point of view, the best way to keep God within our grasp is through cathartic beseeching of the Deity.  The more we feel oppressed and broken, the easy it is for us to reach out to God.

            I have a feeling that they're both right.  For many of us we only feel the need and inspiration to call out to God when we feel oppressed.  Others find it easiest to worship God in gladness and approach in joyous song (Psalms 100:2).  Perhaps it all depends upon the personality of the individual.  But what's most important is that we work hard to fulfill the intent of the verse and make a home for God in our midst.  When we sense God's touch, we have succeeded.    

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