One of the first tasks of the people of Israel after the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai was to build a Tabernacle: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).
Some of the sages thought the command to construct the sanctuary in fact came after the episode of the golden calf. The Midrash suggests that after committing such a grievous sin the people felt ashamed and thought God would never take therm back into His favour, so God told them to create a physical meeting place where they would gather and His presence would be with them.
Nachmanides, however, says the Tabernacle had nothing to do with the golden calf but enabled the people to maintain the closeness to God that had exhilarated them at Mount Sinai.
Many centuries have passed, and the first thing that Jews do in a new locale is still to establish a synagogue. They want a place of meeting, a physical focus for community and a centre for spiritual and educational inspiration. Many of the synagogues built over the course of history were grand, impressive edifices that were triumphs of architectural design. But because of persecution and migration, many of the great synagogue buildings lost their congregations and some were physically attacked and destroyed. So how sensible is it to put up great, solid edifices when there is no guarantee as to their future?
The obvious answer is that you must always hope for the best and have faith that the synagogue will survive and be needed. But unfortunately those who work so hard to put up the building are sometimes such optimists that they lay down their tools and think that some magic will ensure that the synagogue is a success. The Mi Sheberach for the congregation praises both “those who establish synagogues for prayer” and “those who enter them to pray”, and ideally the two groups should be synonymous.