Why Did the Cow Go to Shul?

There is a joke that is absolutely hysterical of you are about 4 years old and growing up in an Orthodox family. Why did the cow go to shul? – To daven Musaf! Get it? Moooosaf! Hahahahahaha. Back in the day when one of my sons was old enough to understand that there was such a thing as joke, but not quite old enough to understand what makes things funny, he coined an alternate version of that joke. Why did the duck go to shul? To get a cup of coffee. *Awkward silence.*

This week’s Torah reading is the first in a series that will primarily discuss ritual sacrifices and the laws of purity and impurity. These are fascinating topics to me which teach many practical ideas and insights. But I have noticed that while they are interesting to me they tend to meet the general population with the same impact as the duck going to shul joke. It’s just that awkward silence. So at least for today we’ll skip the deep dive into sacrifices and talk about prayer. The sages of the Talmud teach that in the place of the sacrifices of yesteryear we have prayer. How is prayer a substitute for the slaughtering of an animal and the sprinkling of its blood on the altar? They seem like pretty different topics.

Two suggestions; a key idea embedded in the rules of sacrifices is that the reality of the actions are determined by the intent of the kohein. Whether the sacrifice is acceptable or not depends on the intent of the person bringing the offering and the person doing the various parts of the service. So even if the actions look ok, the service could be disqualified because of what’s going on in their hearts. Prayer is like that too. Even if someone stands and sits and shuckles and even says words in the prayer book, the essence of prayer is what is happening in the heart of the pray-er. You can’t tell just by looking at someone what G-d thinks of his/her service. A second parallel between sacrifices and prayer is the intent that inspires the worshiper. In the days of old if a person were overwhelmed with gratitude, filled with thanks for the blessings in their life, they would seek to “give back” and connect to the Creator through an offering. If they were sorry for their actions and needed a fresh start unblemished by the past, they would bring a sin offering. Today, if a person feels like a heart filled with gratitude, or is scared for the future, they pour out their feelings in conversation with the Creator. After all, that’s the ideal of what prayer can be.

But what’s interesting to me this week is thinking about why people go to shul, and it’s not just to pray. I see people that go to shul because of a desire to fulfill their responsibility to pray in a way our sages describe as most efficacious – with a congregation. And yet, I look around at the world I think there a lot of other reasons people go to shul. A few years ago there was an article that described Social Orthodoxy and it rang true with what I see. A significant part of our community engages because it feels comfortable. Maybe they have faith, maybe they don’t. Either way, I don’t think that’s what animates them or inspires them. I think they like coming to shul because of the Cheers Paradigm. (That’s where everybody knows their name. If you didn’t get that then we are of different generations.)

In past iterations of my religious life I looked down on the ‘Shul as social club” crowd through the haughty eyes of a Talmudist. Alas, my sharp edges have been weathered a bit over the years. I get it now. In a world where we have to expend so much energy explaining to colleagues why we won’t eat there and why we can’t go there, and why we didn’t watch that, it’s nice to just be someplace where that is already common ground. Even that is refreshing and rejuvenating. Even without prayer. And I want to call out the holiness inherent in connecting at that level.

One of the primary ways that Judaism conceives of the Creator is that the Creator is ONE. That doesn’t just mean that there aren’t a pantheon of gods. It means that the Creator is one integrated, indistinguishable, undifferentiate-able, pure, essential oneness. (Rav Soloveitchik might say, an ontological Oneness.) The Jewish People strive to be Like G-d. An aspect of that is that we also can be One. Connected to each other, responsible for each other, relying on each other, and all rowing the boat in the same direction. I know that is aspirational, but to be fair, our enemies already think of us that way. It’s only we who notice the small differences between us. They recognize that we’re all connected. Being active members of the community, revitalizing the connections between us, even social connections, is integral to the unity of the Jewish people and part of our quest to model G-d’s Oneness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still wish that people didn’t talk as much during davening and the haftorah (ahem, ahem). I wish my own prayers were always inspired by those lofty goals of connecting with the Creator. But I don’t discount the holiness of just being present.

That connects us back to sacrifices too. In the times of the Beit Hamikdash, the great Temple on the Temple Mount, the only place sacrifices could be offered was in that central location. Mini backyard-altars were against the Torah’s rule. During the holidays the people were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Why? An aspect of this is because of what we described above. Connecting together as a community, creating unity is an essential part of our service of the Creator, whether it be sacrificial worship or worship through prayer.

So why do the Jews go to shul? Some go to daven musaf and some just go for a cup of coffee. There is holiness in that too.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now four precious granddaughters.
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