Ma tovu ohaleikha Yaakov, mishkenateikha Yisrael!
“How refined your tents are, O Jacob, your dwelling-places O Israel!” (Num 24:5)
This immortal peroration, pronounced by an outsider, Bilaam – and all the more precious for that – is echoed by every Jewish worshipper immediately upon entering shule.
It is fascinating, however, to reflect that while our Sages chose this verse to acclaim our shule sanctuaries and study-houses, in its original context. the reference is to the private homes (tents) of Am Yisrael in the desert.
Bilaam is helplessly intoxicated with the sanctity, modesty and decorousness of the private dwelling of each family. And yet it seems our Sages wished to showcase these qualities as a paradigm for the way we ought to conduct ourselves in shule.
A century ago, this would have constituted a very different moral lesson. Synagogues were often cold, austere, solemn sanctuaries and one needed to be reminded that bet Knesset means ‘home for gathering’ not just ‘house for prayer’ – a place where we should indeed feel ‘at home’ with G-D..
Now the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that we perhaps need to urgently revisit. particularly in the wake of our long Covid exile, the connection between shule and home and, in so doing, discover a salient message relevant to today.
Let me describe three imaginary contemporary family settings and compare them to three typical scenarios we may find in our mainstream shules of today.
Setting No. 1: Dad has invited the kids into his study as a treat to join him streaming the newly-released Space For Kids interactive documentary on his Smart TV. The kids settle down on cushions yet barely five minutes have elapsed before they start to squabble over earthly space! Then more fidgeting. Then more whispering, more nudging, more discontent. Dad pauses the TV, smiles sweetly at his kids and says softly but firmly: “Either there is quiet immediately or it’s goodnight my darlings!” The kids get the message and you can hear a pin drop for the rest of the duration of the programme.
I think we can all guess at the shul scenario at which this is hinting. The “interactive production” of Shabbat Musaph is on – yet a constant discrepant buzz not coming from either chirping cockatoos or crickets impedes those who wish to engage with Heaven from doing so. Were the rabbi to pause the service and suggest people who want to talk should leave the shul sanctuary he might have a mass exodus or, more likely, be ignored altogether. If only we could show the same decorum and respect in our shules that we would expect our children to show in our family homes!
Setting No. 2: It is 11pm on a Saturday night. .Mum and Dad have retired for the night. The kids know they are welcome in their parents’ bedroom at reasonable times. Somehow they convince themselves this is a reasonable time. They burst into the room in high spirits and are about to clamber all over the bedclothes when they see …….their parents in a highly intimate moment. They sober up in an instant and raise a collective hand to their mouths. Shocked, embarrassed and shamefaced they slink apologetically out of the bedroom.
The marital chamber is the sanctum sanctorum .of the home. And the aron kodesh, is the ‘holy of holies’ of the synagogue. Yet I have seen surprising scenes of late unfold in its domain. Little children,,often accompanied by their older siblings, use the area as their playground, sometimes during services, with their parents doing nothing to stop them. Even Jewishly-observant parents kiss and fondle their children in full view of the aron and regular congregants engage in prolonged bear-hugs there despite the Halacha clearly stating that such conduct is inappropriate “because no other love must be shown in a house of worship except the love of G-D”.(Kitsur Shulchan Arukh 13:1). Unlike the imaginary home scene described above, nobody feels embarrassed.
Setting No. 3: The elegant family dining-room is shortly to be used for entertaining guests. Meanwhile the kids are in there with their nush and with a few toys which gradually multiply until they comprise virtually the whole contents of their toy cupboards. When Mum pokes her head around the door expecting to be able to lay the table, a shocking sight greets her. Toys and paper aeroplanes are strewn everywhere and five screaming children are fighting over three bags of lollies. .Mum somehow finds the vocal wherewithal to scream louder! The contrite kids are made to hurriedly clear up their mess and are sent to their rooms in disgrace.
No such stigma is attached to the scene in shule on Bar Mitsva Shabbats when missiles in the form of hard boiled sweets rain down from the ladies’ gallery without restraint and countless gleeful children appear from nowhere to jostle and push each other, sometimes roughly, in their desperation to accumulate the most. In so doing, they succeed in bringing the service to an undesired halt – and all the conspiratorial mums and dads smile indulgently and murmur ‘how cute!’ (How cute would it be in their elegant dining-rooms?) How this degenerate and potentially dangerous practice ever took root is incomprehensible to me. It bears little resemblance to the ancient custom of throwing toasted grain and walnuts in front of (not at) a bridegroom outdoors as he was being led to his (outdoor) chupa “in the summer, not in the winter when the streets are muddy” (Berachot 50b, Rashi loc.cit). Never would such conduct in violation of the sanctity of a holy place have been tolerated in a synagogue of yore.
As parents we crave a relaxed and loving atmosphere within our homes, yet rightly we still expect certain standards of behaviour from our children when they are at home. G-D, the Parent supreme, also wishes us to form a loving and flexible relationship with Him in our synagogues – but does that mean losing all respect for their sanctity?
If only we would treat our shules at least as respectfully as our homes!. And would that any visitor any time could honestly exclaim of our contemporary synagogues, as Bilaam did of our ancient homes, ma tovu, “how refined!”
Rabbi Chaim Ingram OAM