Why is the Synagogue Holy?
(Excerpt from Yom Kippur Sermon)
It’s a wonderful feeling to come together and pray in our beautiful sanctuary tonight of all nights when many of us thought we would be praying in another building or perhaps not at all. In the book of Exodus (25: 8) God commands us saying, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” and long ago, our congregation did as God commanded. The very first sanctuary in history was of course the Tabernacle, the traveling tent built in the desert by the Israelites, before they were able to eventually construct the Holy Temple.
According to Nahum Sarna, the Tabernacle was built, “As assurance of the continued existence of an avenue of communication with God-----some visible, tangible symbol that God remained always present in their midst.” (Exploring Exodus pg 190). We as human beings require tangible symbols to connect with God, and so eventually we began to construct synagogues as sanctuaries for individual communities. The word synagogue coming from the Greek word for “assembly.”
We as a community believe we are obligated to create space for ourselves to join with the Almighty, so when we built our beautiful Neo-gothic synagogue in 1878, we legitimately declared it holy. We now gather here in this holy edifice together on Yom Kippur in order to commune with God, alongside our friends and family, as we pray for everyone affected by Hurricane Matthew. “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
Yet, I think we all understand the finer nuances of this command. In reality, our synagogue isn’t holy because of the marble-esque pillars, or the melodious organ, or the ark, or the stained glass windows, or the rug in desperate need of a change. Our ancestors in Savannah constructed a magnificent synagogue that has stood the test of time, yet we recognize that it this building itself isn’t holy, it’s a holy space because of the people inside it. As from its inception, the synagogue remains simply a holy vessel that aids us in meeting with the Eternal. The brave Jewish settlers of Savannah Kahal Kadosh Mickva Israel:
As human beings, we create holy space with our actions and thoughts, with our morality and goodness, with our steadfast love for each other and our panache. We create holiness within the walls of our sanctuaries, but we so too take this communal holiness out there into the world with us in our every action. When we volunteer our time to help people in our city, we bring the congregation’s holiness with us. When we donate money for relief efforts, we bring our congregation’s holiness with us. When we leave on vacation and treat people with respect, we even bring this holiness on that vacation. How many of us made calls to check on people in our community during the last few days? How many of us have been assisting people in need in our community these past few days and plan to do more in the future? It’s our dedication to each other and to our Jewish community and our Savannah community that brings God here.
Our Low Country area has sustained damage in so many ways, and we have and will bring our Mickve Israel holiness to the Low Country when we assist our community in bouncing back. Thank you for bringing food for Operation Isaiah. I think we all know that there will be people who need it. Thank you for offering up your home as a place for people to stay. Thank you for the volunteer work you have done and will do with a variety of organizations to help our city. Thank you for helping your neighbors clean out their yard. Thank you for showing support for the men and women working in our city to fix power lines and clean up the streets. Thank for supporting our city officials and police who are tirelessly working to keep us safe during this time. We bring holiness to this building, but we also take our communal holiness out there into the world. May it be a year in which we extend the holiness of our community out farther than ever before.