Synagogues have been closed throughout the world due to the Coronavirus. The loss of communal prayer is a blow to all congregations, especially on Shabbat and holidays regardless of how we celebrate these days. Despite this void, I was taken aback when I heard someone state that not being able to enter their synagogue was preventing them, entirely, from engaging in spirituality and connecting to God.
I would like to suggest a solution to the dilemma posed by this individual. In the Torah, God’s revelation at Mount Sinai is described beginning in Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 19, verse 16 through the end of Chapter 20. Following the revelation, the Torah goes into a very detailed listing of rules. Why does the Torah follow God’s revelation with this very technical legalistic portion? What is the purpose of following a powerful spiritual moment like Sinai with laws about murder, manslaughter, injuries, animals, theft and borrowing, just to name a few?
This rules section begins in an interesting way. Shemot 21:1 states, “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” The French medieval biblical commentator, Rashi explains that the phrase, “And these ordinances,” connects this section of the Torah, with all of its minutia, to the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai. In other words, the cold hard facts of the law, are also part of the experience of the revelation. Specifically, Rashi points out, that when the Torah ends its narrative of Sinai, God commands the people to build an altar for sacrifices to be offered, and that is where the legalistic portion begins. According to Rashi, this teaches us that “you should seat the Sanhedrin (a combination of a Supreme Court and legislative body) in the vicinity of the Temple”—to make the statement that spirituality and our relationship with God are intertwined with ethics and our relationship with our fellow human beings.
This is important for us to understand. Often when people think of religiosity, they think of a synagogue, not morality. It should be clear that in Judaism, the ethics of how we lead our life is directly connected to spirituality.
This can be seen in Devarim (Deuteronomy), Chapter 6, Verses 5 and 7: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” We can interpret this line to mean that we should have a relationship with God. The Torah then continues on in the second half of verse 7 to tell us very specifically how: “Speak of them (words that relate to our relationship with God) while you dwell in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.” Why does the text say we should speak of our relationship with God both in our homes and outside of them? The Torah is trying to tell us that we should be connected to God in all places and times of our life, not just when we are in a house of worship.
The great Chasidic teacher, Rabbi Menahem Mendel, the Kotsker Rebbe, once asked “Where is God?” and answered, “Wherever you let God in.” If we let God in, God can be everywhere—not only in our synagogues, but also in our homes, where we are spending most of our time right now. In fact, it is the home that is the center of Judaism, not the synagogue. Obviously, to the believer, God is everywhere. However, it is necessary for us to make an extra effort if we want God and spirituality to affect our daily lives. Judaism should not only be limited to the synagogue; it should be a holistic experience, affecting every decision we make.
As we spend time in our homes, if we live with others, let us work on the ethics of interpersonal relationships with those who we share our homes. Which is not always easy. Being in close quarters for such an extended period of time can be difficult. For those who live alone and for everyone else as well, we can strive to be better morally in the way we communicate over the phone, the internet and through social media. We can use this time to make our homes places of spirituality, so that when we do emerge, we will re-enter the world with a new understanding and appreciation for how religion can function in the real world. “Where is God?” “Wherever you let God in.”