Drash on Parashat Balak 2022

Drash on Parashat Balak         

Rabbi Esther Jilovsky PhD
Temple Sinai, Wellington, NZ

I have always loved visiting synagogues. When I travelled around Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, I found myself in small towns in Poland and the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania, that had once had thriving Jewish communities. Often the only trace that remained was the Jewish cemetery and sometimes the synagogue. The only visitor, I would stand in the plain and modest structures that had functioned as synagogues for hundreds of years. Usually empty, they were nevertheless heavy with memory. Behind the hushed silence of communities that had been destroyed by the Shoah just sixty or so years earlier lay thousands of Shabbat services, countless rabbis, and the lifecycle events of thousands of people who had gathered for weddings, brises and b’nai mitzvah. All that was left when I visited circa 2005 were the buildings, if they hadn’t been destroyed too.The last two- and a-bit years of the Covid-19 pandemic have left many of us questioning: what is a synagogue? When the pandemic stopped us from meeting in person for services and other congregational activities, many communities chose to meet online instead. Even though virtual services removed the risk of contracting Covid-19—and removed the need to leave one’s home to attend shul, a bonus for many—it wasn’t the same as attending a service in person. The energy, the ruach from praying together as a congregation in the same physical space proved challenging to replicate in an online, virtual space.

The word ‘synagogue’ originates from Greek, meaning to ‘bring together’ or ‘assemble.’ The Hebrew term is beit knesset, literally meaning a ‘house of gathering’ (that’s why the Israeli parliament is called the Knesset). A synagogue is a place where people gather.

In this week’s parasha Balak, we find a verse that begins so many services, both in person and online:
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
‘How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!’ (Numbers 24:5)

These are the opening words of Mah Tovu, traditionally recited upon seeing the synagogue from a distance.[1] In them, we find clues as to what a synagogue could be. Firstly, the word אהל ‘tent,’ which as medieval commentator Sforno explains, ‘dates back to Genesis 25:27 where Yaakov is described asיושב אהלים a dweller in tents.’ More significantly, the ohel moed, the ‘tent of meeting,’ a precursor to the Tabernacle, or mishkan, was a place for Moses to communicate with God, placed outside the Israelite camp (Exodus 33:7). The mishkan itself, a temporary structure built by the Israelites in the desert as dwelling place for God (Exodus 25:8), also suggests a holy and safe place for God and the people of Israel to connect.

When I visited those abandoned synagogues in small towns in Eastern Europe, the communities they once served no longer existed. The inhabitants had been murdered, or had been forced to flee. The buildings continued to exist, but not the people. When we meet for an online service, we come together in a virtual space, not in our synagogue building. Yet, in both cases, we still experience components of a beit knesset, a place of gathering.

May our synagogues continue to be welcoming for all who seek meaning and connection, may our b’tei knesset serve as a warm haven from the chilly winds outside, and may we all strive to retain our physical as well as our virtual prayer spaces as dwelling places for the Eternal.

[1] See: Elyse D. Frishman, ed., Mishkan T’Filah: A Progressive Siddur, World Union for Progressive Judaism (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2010), 193.

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