When the time came, we were very careful to say that it was our synagogue’s physical facility that was closing due to the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus. The building was closing, but of course the synagogue itself was remaining open. The building closed its doors Thursday March 12 in the evening; our virtual congregation opened its “doors” Friday March 13 in the morning.
I think if you would have asked us before this what our congregation was about, we would have told you that we were about community, and Torah, and lifelong learning, and a commitment to excellence, and acts of lovingkindness. I do not believe that any of us would have said that who we were was 8100 Stevenson Road in Pikesville, Maryland.
We knew it was never about the building because in our 149 year history (our birthday is today April 1st) we have inhabited five different physical buildings. We wandered through Baltimore from the City to the County, from synagogue building to synagogue building, several of which still exist today, even as other congregations. But none of those five buildings, even our current magnificent facility at 8100 Stevenson Road IS Chiuzk Amuno Congregation.
This novel expression of Judaism in the past month has made it abundantly clear that it was never about the building. We knew it intuitively, but we are now reminded of it with every online class, every Zoom Bar Mitzvah, every livestreamed service, every Facetimed pastoral conversation, every emailed note, every birthday phone call.
In quiet, and not so quiet, internal conversations over the past years we acknowledged that one of our challenges as a Congregation is our physical space. It is indeed magnificent, but it is also aging. And like most large congregations, we worry greatly about our roof, our HVAC system, our electric bill, our security, our space needs, and all the attendant “blessings” of a large, aging physical plant. It is both a blessing and an albatross.
Last Shabbat we began reading the book of Vayikra, Leviticus and we entered a new landscape with the people of Israel. It begins with the words, Vayikra el Moshe va yiddaber Adonai eilav. And God called to Moshe and spoke to him. (Leviticus 1:1) Our Rabbis asked why God had to beckon to Moses to introduce the laws of sacrifice. One interpretation quoted by the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash is that God had to call to Moses because Moses thought that his assignment was completed. He escorted the people out of Egyptian slavery, brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai and oversaw the building of the Tabernacle which would provide a physical space to encounter the Divine during their wandering. Moses thought the mode of Israelite religion that had been established was well entrenched, working successfully, and thus his professional work was done. Not so, says the opening words of Leviticus.
Like Moses called to learn a new mode of worship, namely the sacrificial system, Jews and all people of faith have been called to find new ways to make God present in situations that the Bible could not have imagined. Maimonides used to instruct us that ritual sacrifice was not an end in itself but rather a means to an end. He says that is why it was so limited – limited in what could be offered, by whom and in what location. Prayer on the other hand, can be offered by any person in any place.
From April 1, 1871 until March 12, 2020 we had been so fortunate to enjoy the blessings of a magnificent physical facility as the home of our prayers and our synagogue community. Now we have left the building behind but we have taken our community and its values with us.
Maimonides knew it was never about the building. Moses learned it was never about the building and now we have learned that as well.