The Tabernacle is the subject of several sidrot at this time of year. Its every aspect – equipment, services and staffing – is set out in scrupulous detail. In order to focus the Divine presence and be the meeting place of the community of Israel, the Mikdash had to meet the most exacting requirements.
It is no wonder that later pious generations found immense depths of meaning in these sidrot.
The relationship between the Tabernacle and its congregation is one of the areas of perennial interest. Bound up with each other, their destinies intertwined, the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) and the people had mutual expectations – and were occasionally disappointed in each other.
The story has not changed over the ages. As successor to the sanctuary, the synagogue has often expected more from its congregation than they could offer; and, for their part, congregations were often angry with their synagogues when they seemed incapable of fulfilling the expectations of their members.
The problem rests partly on the frequent banality of the relationship. The synagogue looks to its members to fill in forms, pay dues, attend services and meetings; few make any religious demands, though some, more fortunately placed, are able to insist on at least basic Sh’mirat Shabbat. Members expect the synagogue to provide services, seats, staff and programs; many also expect shishi or shlishi as an acknowledgement of their membership status.
It all makes for good gossip over the Shabbat lunch table or, only too often, during the K’riat HaTorah. It makes shule politics one of the most absorbing, frustrating and fruitless pursuits that Jewish life has ever invented. But it misses the whole spiritual point.Abraham Lincoln said a pertinent thing about churches, but the problem is little different with synagogues. The churches he knew may have had scriptural words inscribed above their doors; I presume so. Synagogues of course often do place Biblical verses over the entrance. In Hobart, for instance, the magnificent, classically proportioned synagogue, consecrated in 1845, bears the words from Sh’mot: “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, there will I come unto thee and bless thee.”
What did Lincoln say? “Build me a house of worship over the entrance to which is written, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might, and thy neighbour as thyself’, and you may have me as a member.”
The spiritual purpose and possibilities of the synagogue are not given a chance in many places. The clutter of petty organisation and the over-concentration on routines and chores get in the way. Whether I get shishi may be important to my vanity, but in the end it does not bring me closer to God. The lashon hara I pick up during a service may be entertaining enough to give me conversation material for days to come, but in the end it will not raise my sights or purify my soul.
My advice, after being a shule-goer all my life, is simple. Use the synagogue as a place for quiet thinking. Let your gaze roam upwards. Ponder the majesty of God and the magnificence of His creation. Look at yourself and find such potential there that you can hardly believe it.
Quietly glance at your shule neighbours and discover that each one, in his or her own way, really is a tzaddik doing their best to be upright and honourable and to keep their dignity despite all they have to contend with.
Find me a shule with that sort of congregation, and you may have me as a member.