Are Synagogues Necessary? (Shabbos 72)

Towards the end of First Temple period, the greatest prophet was Isaiah.  A member of the royal family, he prophesied to kings and laypersons alike.  A primary concern of Isaiah’s was the attitude people had when they came to worship at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem:

‘Why do I need your numerous sacrifices?’ says Hashem.  ‘I am sated with elevation-offerings of rams and the fat of fatlings; the blood of bulls, sheep and goats I do not desire.  When you come to appear before Me, who sought this from your hand, to trample My courtyards?’

The people would come to the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals in honour to fulfil their biblical obligation to “appear” before God.  Sadly, however, they failed to realize that appearing was just the first step towards worshipping Him with a sincere heart (Isaiah 1:11, Radak).

שָׁגַג בְּלֹא מִתְכַּוֵּין דַּעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הֵיכִי דָּמֵי? אִילֵּימָא כְּסָבוּר בֵּית הַכְּנֶסֶת הוּא וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוָה לָהּ הֲרֵי לִבּוֹ לַשָּׁמַיִם
הרי לבו לשמים – ומה חיוב יש כאן אפי’ ידע שהוא בית ע”ז והשתחוה בו לשמים אין חיוב כאן

What is the case of performing an act of idolatry unwittingly without intent?  Might it be referring to a case where he thought that it was a synagogue and bowed to it, and it turned out that he bowed to idolatry? Behold, his heart is directed towards Heaven.
Rashi: Even if he knew that it was an idolatrous temple, but his intent was to bow to Hashem, he would not be liable.

How is it possible for anyone to confuse a synagogue with a church?  The exterior of the building looks different.  The interior certainly looks different.  And it goes without saying that, by the time the service began, it would be clear that he was in the wrong place!

Rashi’s comment is even more perplexing.  Intent is the main thing.  As long as this fellow’s intent was right, he would be forgiven for worshipping in the wrong building.

In a certain sense, Rashi’s explanation should be thought of conversely.  If intent is the primary issue, then that would be true even when one happened to enter the correct building.  How many of us go to shul, week in, week out, and think very little of it?  We’re worshipping in the right place and bowing down at the right times, but have we mustered up the right intent and focus?

Tragically, we find ourselves right now in a time when synagogue is no longer the answer to our spiritual needs.  Until now, many of us believed that we could simply appear in shul, thinking that as long as we were in the right place, we were doing fine.  Now, more than ever, intent is the main issue.  Each of us needs to be the director of our own spiritual destiny.

During this reset period, you can no longer outsource your Jewish inspiration to rabbis, teachers, and cantors.  You must now become the source of inspiration and motivation for yourself and the members of your family.  Virtual classes and services only achieve so much.  Just like you can’t expect your kids to stay at Zoomschool all day long without any supervision, their Judaism needs to be supervised and carefully choreographed every step of the way.

Right now, your intent and focus need to be taken to a whole new level.  Your home is the new synagogue.  And if you’re not focused, you risk having your congregants – yourself and your family members – lose interest and drift away.

The truth is that even before coronavirus, we should have been much more focused and intentional in our dedication to our Judaism.  Judaism is not a spectator sport.  That’s why the first paragraph of the Shema is addressed in the singular form:

You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these words which I command you this day. Teach them to your children and speak of them when you stay at home and when you go on the way, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a reminder upon your forehead.  Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

There’s an interesting halacha concerning the last verse of the inaugural paragraph of the Shema.  A mezuzah need only be affixed to our personal doorposts, not those of the synagogue.  Our personal domains require intentionality and constant focus on our Judaism.

Rabbeinu Chananel understands the Gemara as referring to an individual who bowed down to the actual synagogue itself.  That was the attitude that Isaiah railed against.  The people came to the Temple.  But instead of worshipping at the Temple, they worshipped the Temple.  Instead of worshipping God, they were bowing down to the Temple itself.  They failed to recognize that the purpose of their pilgrimage was to be inspired in their Judaism, so that the inspiration would carry them religiously through the months when they were back home.

Some religions are desperate to return to their buildings.  For them, the house of worship is essential.  In Judaism, the synagogue is only a means to an end.  In fact, our tradition teaches that had we not sinned with the Golden Calf, we may have had no need for a Tabernacle.  Prayer could have been performed without any need for bricks and mortar.

Right now, we’ve been returned to our primordial spiritual state.  Each individual must take ownership of their relationship with Heaven.  May you hone your focus and intentionality and be a source of spiritual inspiration to the members of your domestic temple!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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