In the synagogues, you sense the closeness of Hashem and the potential greatness of humankind
“Please let me know Your ways…” (Shemos 33:13)
There are many questions on the Eigel Hazahav. Was it an actual idol? Were Bnei Yisrael seeking a replacement for Moshe or Hashem? What’s the connection of the Mishkan to the Eigel? Why did Moshe, after dealing with the Eigel, pitch his tent outside the camp? Shouldn’t he now be closer to the people, not more distant?
Lastly, what was Moshe asking from Hashem with his words, “Let me know Your ways?” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation)
My childhood summers were spent at my grandparents in Seattle. Every year, we’d make a day trip up to Vancouver to visit the famous Stanley Park. Opa had a 1965 Plymouth Valiant without power steering or power brakes, but it made the six-hour round trip faithfully. On the way back home, we’d stop for a late afternoon picnic and then Minchah. The picnic was always fried chicken and potato salad, and Minchah was always held in a beautiful shul that was empty at that hour. My father would pick up the key from the shamash, and the shul would be only ours for that magical hour of Minchah.
Moshe was making a prayer so audacious that the Torah doesn’t state it directly. We have to reconstruct it from clues within the text itself. It seems that we can suggest that Moshe’s distance was the cause of the sin; the people panicked because of the absence of their leader. Moshe went down from Har Sinai. He punished the guilty. He prayed for their forgiveness.
But having restored order, Moshe began a new approach. He was, in effect, saying to Hashem: what the people need is not for me to be close to them. I’m just human — here today, gone tomorrow. But You are eternal. You are their G-d. They need You to be close to them. Until now, they’ve experienced You as a terrifying, elemental force. The plagues, Kri’as Yam Suf, culminating at Har Sinai where they couldn’t continue to hear Hashem’s voice.
The people needed, said Moshe, to experience not the greatness of Hashem but the closeness of Him, not Hashem heard in thunder and lightning at the top of the mountain, but as a perpetual Presence in the valley below. That’s why Moses pitched his tent outside the camp, as if to say to Hashem: it’s not my presence the people need in their midst, but Yours.
The shul was a beautiful one, with polished oak furniture, the seats upholstered in cushy teal velvet. The woman’s balcony ran around the perimeter of the double-storied main beis medrash.
My brothers would always vie for the honor of leading the “tzibbur” for Minchah, standing at the big bimah, wrapped in the tallis of the chazzan looking dwarfed by their surroundings, but so proud to be at the amud, something they never could do in our large kehillah back home.
My sister and I would trek up the winding wood stairs to the ezras nashim. (Why? For formalities’ sake, I suppose.) Although I wasn’t yet bas mitzvah and probably never davened Minchah other than those occasions, I’d hold the heavy siddur that was set by each place and daven Minchah slowly, savoring each moment. For that precious half hour, the shul belonged to us alone, and we felt like royalty in our own soaring palace.
That’s why Hashem commanded the people to build the Mishkan, where He would dwell among them. The word Mishkan shares the root shachen, a neighbor. We cannot see Hashem’s face, we cannot understand His ways, but we can encounter His glory whenever we build a home for His presence. That’s the ongoing miracle of Jewish spirituality.
That’s one of the striking differences between synagogues and cathedrals. In a cathedral, you sense the vastness of G-d and the smallness of humankind. But in the synagogues, you sense the closeness of Hashem and the potential greatness of humankind. No religion has ever held Hashem higher, but none has ever felt Him closer.
When Minchah wound down, we’d slowly put back the siddurim and walk to the exit, loath to leave this sanctuary, this time and place that felt way beyond the humble world outside.
For years that shul was ours alone, and now I can’t even remember its name. But that feeling of connection… that I’ll always remember.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 781)
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