“They shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” (Shmot 25:8)

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” (Rahm Emanuel, current United States ambassador to Japan, formerly White House Chief of Staff from 2009 to 2010 under Barack Obama, and mayor of Chicago).

Since the seventh of October 2023, I have heard many podcasts dealing with the reaction of the world and the Jewish people to the brutal events of that fateful Simchat Torah. During one such podcast, the guest (whose identity escapes me) noted a fascinating trend in Jewish history. Whenever the Jewish people experienced a crisis, such as massacre or exile, it was always followed by a period of incredible growth, creativity and building. He offered several examples and I also add some of my own:

In the aftermath of the golden calf debacle, Moshe commanded the Israelites to bring donations for the purpose of building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). An event that caused almost a complete alienation from God resulted in the construction of the first communal House of Worship, a place where God’s Presence rested and where the nation received atonement for their sins.

The destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in the year seventy of the Common Era was a crushing blow to the Jewish people, their national pride and identity. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered, taken as slaves or exiled far and wide. The Jewish people lost their homeland but they held tight to their “portable home”, the Torah. In fact, the period following the destruction was the most fruitful time for the development of the Oral Law. This was the period of some of the greatest Tannaim (sages of the Mishna), including Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Mishna was completed between the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. This was followed by the Talmudic period (from roughly 200 to 475 BCE), during which the great sages of Israel and Babylon discussed, analysed, debated and dissected every word of the Mishna. The Jerusalem Talmud was completed first, and some 150 years later, the Babylonian Talmud was completed.

The expulsion from Spain in 1942 was a devastating moment in Jewish history. A prosperous, vibrant and highly educated community came to an abrupt end. The exiles fled to Portugal, Amsterdam, Salonika (modern day Thessaloniki in Greece) and Israel. Many of the greatest Spanish rabbis settled in Safed and the small town in the north of the Holy Land became a centre of Torah study. It was a time of giants, some of whom produced classic works of Jewish Law such as the Shulchan Aruch (by Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575). This was also the era of the great Kabbalists such as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak, 1522-1570) and the legendary Arizal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) and his student Rabbi Chaim Vital.

The Cossack uprisings of 1648 and 1649, led by Bogdan Khmelnitsky, saw the worst slaughter of Jews since the destruction of the Second Temple. Entire communities were destroyed and thousands of Jews were displaced. Yet in the next century, the Chassidic movement rose to prominence in Eastern Europe and this was followed by the rise of the modern Yeshiva, with the first such institution opening its doors in the town of Volozhin, Lithuania in 1803.

And then there was the Holocaust, during which a third of the world Jewish population was annihilated between 1941 and 1945. Only three years later, in May 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed and sovereignty was once again restored to the Jewish people. If there was ever an example of growth after destruction, of “not wasting a serious crisis”, it is the birth of Israel, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

What was the positive outcome that followed the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE? The answer to this is a prophecy of comfort in the book of Ezekiel (11:16), “Therefore, say: So said the Lord God: Although I have distanced them among the nations and although I dispersed them through the lands, I will be for them as a small sanctuary in the lands to which they came.” The “small sanctuary” refers to the synagogues and study houses in the diaspora (Megillah 29a). Prior to the Babylonian exile, there were no shuls or batei medrash amongst the Jewish people. The only communal place of worship was the Temple in Jerusalem. But God reassured the refugees that they would have a “small” Temple wherever they went and so the era of the shul began. Since then, the beit haknesset/shul/synagogue has occupied a central place in every Jewish community. It is a venue for prayer, study, socialising, celebration, communal events and many other activities. The author of the Torah commentary Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619, commentary to Devarim 11:21) proves that a shul possesses the same sanctity as the land of Israel. He cites passages from the Talmud that people who frequent shul are promised length of days and that in the time of the Messiah, the shuls in the diaspora will be transported to Israel. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds.  Consider that the grand, golden ark in the Ponovez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak comes from a shul in Italy and that the pews and other furnishings in the Shivtei Yisrael shul in Ra’anana come from the Parow synagogue in Cape Town! It is fair to say that Judaism as we know it today would not have existed if it were not for the myriad ‘small sanctuaries’ that dot the Jewish landscape.

I have spent a good deal of my life in shuls and batei medrash (halls of study). I have come to love them and I am always excited to visit a shul for the first time, whether in South Africa or elsewhere. I have been to tiny shuls that seat barely more than a minyan and I have visited enormous shuls, including the Belz shul in Jerusalem, whose main sanctuary seats 2589 worshippers. In shul, one feels the rhythm of the Jewish year:  the awe of the High Holy Days; the joy of Sukkot and Purim; the grandeur of Pesach and Shavuot and the tragedy of the fast days. Shul is a place where one fulfils so many mitzvoth: the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah; the Megillah reading on Purim; the lighting of the menorah on Chanukah; the shaking of the lulav on Sukkot and the more regular precepts such as tallis, tefillin, reciting the Shemah and the reading of the Torah. I enjoy the camaraderie of the daily minyan; the familiar tunes sung by the chazzan; the silence that descends when the community recites the Amidah; the joy of those celebrating simchas and the unique feeling of being part of a community. Shul is so much more than a physical building. It is a place of refuge from the madness of the world, a place of safety and a venue for personal and communal growth. In the immortal words of the late Uncle Willie Katz, “There’s no business like shul business and there are no people like shul people!”

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   

Rabbi Liebenberg

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