‘Build me a sanctuary’… our gathering places
I know that news cycles and crises follow each other in rapid succession in the frenetic pace of our national attention span. But the carefully measured words and tones that my colleague Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker offered in an interview so soon after escaping hostage in his own synagogue have not left me. When asked if he would be returning to the Congregation Beth Israel building soon, he replied that “it will not necessarily be an easy thing, but it is a really important thing.” These words from a man who had spent most of the day staring down the barrel of a gun and (it must be said again because of the remarkable presence of mind it required) seized an opening to s’ escape with his fellow hostages by throwing a chair at the shooter.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker also gave those of us who watched his nationally televised interview a Hebrew lesson, teaching newcomers and reminding insiders that “house of gathering,” Beit Knesset, is one of the Hebrew words for synagogue. And since anyone who has raised money to build and maintain a synagogue can probably appreciate more than the rest of us, it takes a lot not just to lay the groundwork for a new building, but afterwards and forever to make face its monthly expenses once the building is finally standing.
Anyone who has ever led a synagogue building campaign knows one Torah verse more than any other,
“Build me a sanctuary to dwell among them,” from Exodus 25:8. This unique verse adorns as many synagogue walls as it illuminates the new building. But on an extremely practical, unromantic level, temple fundraisers and budget balancers see every brick laid and every bill paid as the actualization of an altruistic ideal. Each standing synagogue bears witness to a passionate affirmation: The people of Israel live, Am Yisrael Chai.
With this in mind, therefore, it is no exaggeration to affirm an unbroken line from the portable tabernacle of the Torah portion, made with the finest portable materials of the day, to every synagogue – always and everywhere! From the synagogues atop Masada in southern Jerusalem to Gamla in the north, from the mosaic-adorned floors of Bet Alpha near Afula to the frescoed walls of the Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria, recovered and copious records from the Cairo Geniza to the superb synagogues of Cordoba and Dubrovnik and St. Thomas and Savannah. Each synagogue with its own Torah and ark, its own pews and prayer books, its own Menorah and its own eternal light. And of course, every synagogue with its own Jews who, in one way or another, remarkably continue to take seriously the words “Build me a sanctuary…”
By re-teaching us that our synagogues are first and foremost places of gathering, Rabbi Charlie reminds me that a small miracle happens every time one of us opens the door to the sanctuary of his own synagogue. We do what we have always done: we enter. We come together. We are learning. We pray. And then, after Ein Keloheinu, and for a very good reason, we say L’chayim.