The Three Purposes of Religion: Why We Need Synagogues

Dear Friends,

L’Shanah Tovah! It is wonderful to see you all here tonight. For those who come here on a regular basis — thank you for enhancing the spiritual life of our community. For those who come more sporadically ….welcome! Welcome home! Your presence makes our sanctuary all the more holy and this day all the more special.

Each year — mid June, when I begin to think about what I want to speak about on the High Holy Days, like all rabbis, I face a quandary. “What should I say? What do I need to talk about? And more important, what do my congregants and community need to hear from me?

I know I’m not alone. Every rabbi in every synagogue asks the same questions. This year, I thought I would try some crowd sourcing. And so, I posted a request on my Facebook page and asked people what THEY thought I should talk about. The response was tepid at best…. But then, I posted an article on my page that was floating around the internet about why fewer and fewer Jews were coming to Synagogues on a regular basis — and the floodgates opened up.

Something about that article touched a nerve. I heard from people all around the country. Some respondents questioned the relevance of the synagogue in the 21st century. They talked about “edifice complexes” and a lack of openness within lay leadership and staff. I read stories of how some people tried to connect but found it difficult or almost impossible to find their place…Yes — some shared that being part of a synagogue was a vital and important part of their lives. Many people posted wonderful things about our congregational community here at Temple Emanuel. But these were in the minority. I also am fully aware of the fact that people who tend to post on Social Media are often the ones who have the strongest feelings about the topic being discussed. And yet, I must confess — the volume of responses and the pain and anger that many of them reflected were disheartening.

And so, tonight I am going to address the elephant in the room: Why do we need a synagogue? Why do we need religion? Why do we come to this place every year on the High Holidays and recite prayers, and listen to ancient texts and melodies that, for many of us, do not reflect our daily experience? If the purpose of the Synagogue is to be a religious center, is that still relevant today? I think it is. And here’s why.
The first synagogues came into being around 586 BCE — shortly after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. An exiled people, we were faced with a crisis of monumental proportions. We no longer could offer the sacrifices that defined our religious lives; we had to innovate in order to survive. And so, we created a new institution where we could re-shape and (yes) reform our faith. In the Mishnah, Tractate Avot[i] we find:

Al Shelosha D’varim Ha-Olam Omeyd — Al ha Torah, v’al ha Avodah, v’al g’millut chasadim .
The World is sustained by three things: By Torah, By Prayer and By Loving deeds.”

This is not only an ancient proverb; it is the mission statement for the synagogue. From its earliest inception to the present day, the synagogue has been a subversive institution. It was and continues to be about radical change and reformation.

And it is here in the synagogue that we experience the meaning and purpose of our faith.

Now you don’t need a building to be Jewish. You don’t need a sanctuary, or a social hall, or meeting rooms or classrooms. But you do need a place where Jewish life, culture and tradition are nurtured. You need teachers, cantors, rabbis and educators who dedicate their lives to ensure that our values and traditions will live on. You need a place where we can study together and ensure that our most important religious values are both taught and lived on a daily basis. That is the synagogue. It is here that we come to understand our faith and apply it to our lives.

But, just as the Jewish people faced a crisis after the destruction of the First Temple, so too, are we facing a crisis today. 2500 years ago, our people were exiled from our land. Today, we are facing, not a physical exile, but a spiritual exile. For many, the thought of religion as a guiding force is irrelevant. The moniker, “Spiritual, but not religious,” over the last 10 years has become a buzz-word for over 30% of American society.[ii] Organized religion is increasingly perceived to be irrelevant an increasing number — especially among those under 40.

And I understand why….much of what takes place in many of our synagogues has become stale, rote and irrelevant to a growing core of our community. And so, like our ancestors before us, we need to take time to reflect and retool ourselves and our institutions in order to make them a central part of our lives. What happens here in the Synagogue cannot stay here in the synagogue (to mis-quote an oft-used and probably inappropriate ad campaign). Our task must be to make religious life vital and central to our lives. We at Temple Emanuel are committed to this process of self-examination and reflection. But before we can succeed in that endeavor, we need to be clear about what religion is all about — and how it can be best experienced in our sacred community.

And so, in a nutshell, here is what I believe are the three main purposes of religion:

· The first is to teach us that we should not be alone.
· The second is to teach us that life is a gift.
· And the third purpose of religion — and the most important of all — is to teach us that we are mirrors

The first purpose of religion is to teach us that we should not be alone:

Our faith helps us to comprehend the fact that the brief time that we are allotted here on earth is not supposed to be a solo quest. Relationships are central to what it means to be human. Life is best experienced with others.

In Genesis, 2:18 we find the following: Lo tov heyot ha Adam l’vado – it is not good for people to be alone.” From that moment on — the entire book of Genesis can be seen as a chronicle of Humanity trying to find a way to discover what it means to be in relationship with one another and, ultimately, with God. Sometimes we are successful, other times we completely miss the mark – but we never stop trying.

Indeed, tomorrow morning, when we read the difficult and powerful story of the Akedah — the binding of Isaac — one of the key themes that emerges from the text is that of Abraham trying to understand what it means to be loyal to both his God and his loved ones.

Religion — Judaism — provides us with a way to come together for a common purpose, sharing common values, expressing common thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams

Tonight, we have come to this sacred place to welcome in a New Year. During these Yamim Noraim — these Days of Awe — our differences are minimized as we engage in the communal process of Teshuvah — repentance — or “returning.”

If you think about it, this is a highly personal thing. Why must we confess our sins publicly? I mean, do we really need to look at our flaws in the midst of a group of people? Why should we air our dirty laundry in front of our neighbors?

The answer, our tradition teaches, is that we go through this communal process because we not only need to confront our failings; we also need to ask forgiveness from others and to grant it when asked ourselves. Our tradition teaches that we are required to ask forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. It even tells us that we are to ask them three times if they say no. But then, the text goes on to say, we are also required to forgive those who come to US asking for forgiveness — we need to let go[iii]. Why? To preserve community. To let go of old grudges and move on. Because life is about being together – creating a sacred community — a Kehilla Kedosha.

But even if we do not feel the need to ask for forgiveness — we still need to be together. Our very presence — in this sanctuary in our synagogue: sitting, standing, singing, praying…. reinforces the fact that we need one another. We need to share our lives with others. We need to see that our fears, our hopes our failures, our Teshuvah is the same. When we do this, we elevate our souls and together make sacred connections that bind us to one another. And so, the first purpose of Religion is to teach us that we should not be alone.

The second purpose of Religion is to teach us that life is a gift.

I want to tell you a story: Once, long ago, in a kingdom far away, there was a most unusual custom. When a king died, a special bird, called the “bird of good fortune” was released. This bird flew around the kingdom and the person upon whose head it finally landed became the next king.
In this same kingdom, there was a slave who lived and worked in the king’s palace. He was a jester and a musician who entertained the king, his family, and guests by dressing in funny clothing including a cap made of chicken feathers and a belt made from the hooves of sheep and a drum carved out of an old gourd. Every night, when the King wanted to be entertained, he would call for his slave to come out a make a fool of himself. That was his job. That was his life.

It came to pass that the king died suddenly and the “bird of fortune” was released. It circled in the sky some time, while the people of the kingdom watched in wonderment. Finally, it came to rest on the head of the slave, nesting itself in his hat of chicken feathers. Immediately, and to his surprise and consternation, he was declared king of the entire kingdom, and in an instant, the slave was transformed into a powerful sovereign.
He moved from his slave quarters into the king’s palace, donned his royal attire, and sat upon his throne.

For his first royal decree, he had a small, simple hut built next to the palace. Every day, the new king visited the little hut, disappearing behind the door for a short time. Then he would emerge, and lock the door behind him. His ministers and advisors thought this very peculiar behavior, but after all, he was the king now and who would question him?

As the years went on, the new king passed many laws aimed at reducing slavery and suffering. The changes were made gradually — so gradually that no one noticed them. The king was known to all for his kindness and compassion, as well as his peculiar habit of visiting the odd little hut once a day.

One day, after many years, his closest advisor asked, “Your majesty, what is it that you keep in that hut of yours?”

“My most treasured possessions!” the king replied, and he led the advisor into the hut and showed him a cap made of chicken feathers, a belt made from the hooves of sheep and a drum carved out of an old gourd. There also was a large, full length mirror.

“These are your most precious possessions?” the advisor replied. “They are the trinkets of a slave!”

The king replied to his advisor: “When you made me your king, I promised myself and God that I would never forget that I was once a slave, lest I grow arrogant and haughty, and treat people as I was once treated. Every morning, I come here and dress as I was once forced to dress. I stare at myself in the mirror and wait until the tears roll down my cheeks. Only then am I prepared to leave this hut and rule as a good king should. These are the most treasured possessions I have.”[iv]

I love that story! It teaches a basic truth that so many of us are loath to incorporate into our lives — the realization that life is a gift from God — no matter how bad things get — or how much fortune we accumulate — we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Once we understand this, we have no choice but to work to make the world a better place. This is a central tenant of our faith. Every year at Passover, at our seders, we sing the song, “Dayenu.” We say — if God had only bought us out of Egypt — “Dayenu!” it would have been enough. But no — God fed us with Manna…”dayenu — it would have been enough, but no, God brought us to Mt. Sinai and gave us the Torah….”Dayenu!” it would have been enough….

My friends, we live in a society that teaches us that nothing is enough. From an early age, we are bombarded with the concept that we need to hoard and spend ourselves into happiness. And this impacts our relationships as well when we start to judge those closest to us by what they can do for us — rather than by what we can do for them.

Healthy Religion teaches us that life is a gift. And it is in the synagogue that we can share that gift with others — by caring for those who don’t have enough — by being a source of comfort and consolation to those who are in need. And this brings me to my third point:

The third purpose of Religion is to teach us that we are mirrors.

There is a midrash that relates to the first of the 10 Commandments (which really isn’t a Commandment at all.) Anochi Adonai Elohecha — I am Adonai your God. The rabbis comment on the fact that the word, Elohecha (your God), is in the singular — I am YOUR God. It doesn’t say “I am the God of all of you..” The text is personal, intimate — it is as though is God speaking directly to each of us. In the Midrash, Rabbi Levi teaches that when God spoke those words it was as if a mirror appeared in front of each person at mount Sinai. They saw their own reflection in God’s words[v].

I have my own take on this Midrash. Maybe, after the commandments were given, after we left Sinai, we held on to our treasured mirrors and kept them as family heirlooms to be passed down from generation to generation. But we adapted and changed them. Instead of using them to see our own reflections, we turned them around and focused them on those around us.

I believe that the most important sentence in the Torah can be found in Genesis 1:27 where we find that: “…..God created Humanity in the Divine Image.” When we learn to see the godly, the holy, and the potential for good in every person we meet — we are using our mirrors to improve and work towards perfecting our all too imperfect world.

We are mirrors when we help others to see the Godly in themselves.

We are mirrors when we look at the person next to us and help them to see God’s presence in their actions, hopes, fears, loves.

We are mirrors when we feel the pain of others and work to ease it through our presence, our compassion and our action.

We are mirrors when we help others to see that they are created in the image of God.

The story is told: In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who was concerned about the legacy he would leave to the people of his town. The man spent a great deal of time contemplating his dilemma, and at last, decided to build a synagogue. In the course of his planning, he decided that no one would see the plans for the building until it was finished. The construction took quite a long time — much longer than he anticipated.

But at long last, the project was completed. The townspeople were excited and curious about what they would find upon entering their new synagogue. When the people came for the first time they marveled at the synagogue’s magnificence. No one could ever remember so beautiful a synagogue anywhere in the world.

Then, noticing a seemingly obvious flaw in the design, one of the townspeople asked, “Where are the lamps? What will provide the lighting?”

The proud nobleman pointed to brackets, which were strategically placed all along the walls throughout the synagogue. He then gave each family a lamp as he explained, “Whenever you come to the synagogue, I want you to bring your lamp, and light it. But, each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be dark. This lamp will remind you that whenever you are absent, some part of God’s house will be dark. Your community is relying on you for light.”

We come here tonight and our collective light shines brightly. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, how bright or how dark it is inside of these walls depends solely on each one of us.

When we bring our own light to this sacred place — we help others’ to see their reflection in the sacred mirrors we all carry with us at all times.

The purpose of a Synagogue — the Kehilla Kedosha — is to become a place where we bring religious values to life. It is in the Synagogue that we nurture the best in ourselves and our community while, at the same time, working together to improve the imperfect world around us. It is here that we learn about and celebrate the possibilities for holiness in our lives.

It is here in the Synagogue that we remember and live out the three main purposes of religion:

· We should not be alone.
· Life is a gift.
· We are mirrors

Temple Emanuel is not perfect. There are many things that we can do better. And yet, we are nonetheless committed to continuing the legacy of innovation, from which the synagogue was born over 2500 years ago. On this Erev Rosh HaShanah, let us pledge — together — to kindle lights in our hearts and souls — and to work together — to create the most dynamic and supportive community we can be.

L’shanah Tovah .

[i] Mishnah, Avot 1:2
[iii] C.f. Rambam’s Mishneh Torah – “Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentence) 2:1, This Wikipedia article has an excellent Bibliography of secondary sources as well:
[iv] Thank you, Rabbi Robin Nafshi for the text of this story.
[v] c.f. Schulweiss, Rabbi Harold , In God’s Mirror: Reflections and Essays. KTAV Publishing House, 2003

About the Author
Joe Black serves as Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, a large Reform synagogue in Denver, Colorado. He also is a husband, a father, a musician, a limericker and a skier. You can follow Rabbi Black's congregational blog at You also can find out more about his music at Rabbi Black's latest book - There Once Was A Man From Canaan: The Five Books Of Limerick - is available at
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