There is a wonderful story about the rabbi who is greeting congregants after services on Yom Kippur. He sees Mr. Goldstein, and realizes that he has not seen him for a full year.
“Hayyim,” says the rabbi, “Are you in the army of God?”
“Of course, Rabbi,” says Mr. Goldstein.
“Then how come I only see you once a year?”
Mr. Goldstein leans in close and whispers, “Rabbi, I’m in the secret service!”
There is a verse from the Torah that we customarily say every time we enter a synagogue, and many of us are familiar with it (Numbers 24:5):
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael
How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!
The words come from the mouth of the non-Israelite prophet Bil’am, sent by the Moabite king Balaq to curse the Israelites. What comes from his mouth, however, are not curses, but rather blessings. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) interpret this line to speak of the two poles of Jewish life. Bil’am’s blessing says that the Jews will always have batei kenesset (synagogues: places where Jews have traditionally prayed) and batei midrash (traditional study halls, where Jews have learned the ancient words of our tradition). They read ohalekha = your tents = synagogues and mishkenotekha = your dwelling places = batei midrash.
That’s why Mah Tovu is the first thing in the siddur. That’s why we say it when we enter a synagogue, to recall that even as we lost the Temple in Jerusalem and were exiled and faced so many challenges in Diaspora, we could always count on this blessing.
Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, saw this verse as the key to Jewish survival throughout the centuries. We are drawn near to our tradition by Bil’am’s blessing: The synagogue speaks to the heart and the beit midrash speaks to the mind. These two places are the essential points of qesher / connection in Jewish life. They have kept us Jewish for two thousand years after we should have disappeared, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. That is why we need both. We need to engage both the heart and mind.
Before we go any further, however, I just have to make sure we all know what I mean by beit midrash. Both the beit kenesset and the beit midrash emerged in antiquity, but they developed separately and are identified in the Talmud as separate places. We all know the synagogue. But most contemporary Jews, and probably the vast majority of Jews throughout history, have not been in a beit midrash.
Picture a bunch of Jews seated around tables, heavy books open in front of them, reading, discussing, or indeed arguing, mostly in pairs, around the room. The walls are lined with books – sets of the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, collections of midrash, texts and translations, dictionaries, the tools of textual study. Some are deep in thought. Some sway in concentration. Some schmooze with each other and laugh. That’s a traditional beit midrash.
You may recall that I have spoken over these holidays now for three times about the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, and qedushah, also known as connection, community, and holiness. But today I’d like to add something to it: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov. Heart and mind.
A synagogue is a place where we make connections with each other and with God, where we build and engage with our community, and where we seek qedushah, holiness and holy moments. However, it is not meant to be only a beit kenesset, a place of gathering for prayer, but it should also serve as a beit midrash, a place of learning. The needs of the contemporary Jewish world require the synagogue to be both.
The synagogue is meant to be a place where we express emotion, of openness, of expressing our vulnerability. I have literally held the hands of fellow Jews as they cried in synagogue, as they grieved for lost loved ones, as they took an inventory of their lives and came up wanting. That’s what this place is for. It’s about love and yearning, as I spoke about last night. It’s about the ritual framework that supports us in our times of need, and helps us achieve exultant highs in our times of joy.
We don’t have too many spaces like this in our society any more. Those of you who heard me speak in August about the future of the Conservative movement might recall that I mentioned the sociologist Robert Putnam, who documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam points to the disappearance of social societies (the Elks, the Shriners, Hadassah) and bridge clubs and bowling leagues and even couples dining out together to show that we have less and less social capital, that is, connections with each other, than we did in the middle of the 20th century. This is not healthy for a whole bunch of reasons.
But Putnam does point out that houses of worship still offer social capital in spades. You meet people at services, you kibbitz at kiddush, you celebrate together and grieve together and talk and learn and sing in synagogue.
This building makes our world a better place, and it functions by helping us connect to our emotions. The synagogue resides in the heart.
But the beit midrash is all about the mind. It’s about logic and deduction, about puzzling through ancient language and situations that are as resonant today as they were two millennia ago, because we continue to apply them to how we live here and now. It is a place where we connect to each other through the shared joy of the quintessentially Jewish pursuit of textual learning, and we unlock the qedushah found within the words of our ancient scholars. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”
Learning the words of our tradition is, according to the Mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1), the highest mitzvah in Jewish life. Higher than keeping Shabbat and kashrut. Much more important than fasting on Yom Kippur. That is why the beit midrash is so essential to Jewish life. Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah, says the Mishnah, weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined.
And so our tents and our dwelling places, the beit kenesset and the beit midrash, are the places that connect us to each other and to God. These are the places where connection, community, and qedushah are quite literally fashioned.
And today, for us, they have to be the same building. This synagogue must be for the heart and the mind. It must be a beit kenesset and a beit midrash, because the Jewish world needs both.
But it took me a while to figure that out.
More than eight years ago, when I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a newly-minted rabbi, I was under the impression that the most important thing for a rabbi to exercise was the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc. All very heady stuff, gleaned from old, dusty books.
It took me several years thereafter to understand that while it is impressive to appeal to the mind, the appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at kiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.
So, for example, it seems that when thinking about Yom Kippur, we usually consider its mechanical aspects: fasting for no less than 25 hours, not bathing, repenting by reciting the standard language in the mahzor with the traditional melodies, confessing our sins, striking our hearts, blowing the shofar at 7:58 PM, and so forth.
But we should also consider that this is a time to acknowledge that we are broken, and that we are yearning for wholeness. Nobody here among us is perfect; we all come to Yom Kippur with something in our hearts that needs to be cleansed. As I said last night, we yearn for closeness with God, for mending our relationships, for spiritual purity. These are ideas which flow from the heart.
Consider this for a moment: the public confessional prayers, the Viddui, are recited 12 times over the course of this day. Six times in the silent Amidah, wherein we confess our sins to ourselves, and six times out loud, in public, led by the sheliah tzibbur / the congregational emissary who leads us in prayer. And every single time it is in first person plural: we have transgressed, we have cheated, we have stolen; for the sins we have sinned against You by qalut rosh / superficiality, or by qashyut oref / being stiff-necked, and so forth.
Think about that: we are standing in public, confessing to a whole litany of deplorable behaviors. Doesn’t matter if we have done them or not. We are all stating, to ourselves AND out loud, that we are broken. How powerful is it that Jewish tradition asks us to do so! How therapeutic!
(There is a nice custom to go with this, by the way: we all know that we strike our chests. But something else you can do during the confessional is lean over a bit; hang your head in shame. We should not be proud of having transgressed. We should not be standing upright. We should be a little hunched over.)
That picture of Yom Kippur, going beyond the mechanics of the day to connect our tradition with how we live now, is an appeal to the heart. And that is far more attractive to all of us then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.
And yet, it seems to me that what works best in the Jewish world is when the heart and mind are in balance. In parallel, just like in the verse: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.
To uncover the love in Judaism, you have to dig deep into Jewish text. You have to go back to the mind.
When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)
There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.
When we study Torah, we should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but we should also ask, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. The standard commentators on the Torah that some of us know (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language. Midrash, stories written to fill in the gaps of the Torah, seeks to humanize the text by completing it. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle – how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.
There are many ways to find answers to the question of “What does this mean to us?” Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:
- What do I want my children to learn about life?
- How do I make a difference in this world?
- How do I balance my commitment to my family with my work obligations?
- How do I improve myself?
- Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?
And so forth.
These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah. You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.
In an ideal synagogue, the one that we are building here at 5915 Beacon St., we will strike the proper balance between heart and mind. We will not only pray, ask for forgiveness, seek teshuvah / repentance, rejoice and mourn, but we will also learn the words of our tradition and what they mean to us. We will be both a beit kenesset and a beit midrash.
I have taken that journey from the mind to the heart and back again. And you can too. But it requires entering the Jewish study hall, that part of the synagogue devoted to lifelong Jewish learning. We will all have to dig deeper. You need both the heart and the mind to sustain that qesher, that connection with our tradition.
So – I know you’re waiting for this now – what’s the action item, Rabbi?
I would like you to seriously consider one simple question, a question that I hope will help you re-envision your entire understanding of Judaism and of the role of the synagogue. This is a kind of a self-test:
“How has your relationship with Judaism changed in the last ten years?” Judaism – the set of rituals and texts and customs that make up our tradition. Not the cultural trappings: the foods, the institutions, the cool Jewish sites you saw on vacation in Spain.
If you search very deeply and your answer is, “It hasn’t,” then we have some work to do, to engage your heart and mind. Give me a call, shoot me an email, message me on Facebook; I would love to meet up and talk about it.
If you can come up with a whole litany of things you have learned and practices you have adopted and books you have read and holy moments you have experienced, and ways you have applied values from our tradition to your life, then we still have some work to do, because Judaism is a lifetime of learning.
Talmud Torah keneged kulam. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” It is high on my agenda here at Beth Shalom to move this congregation forward, and that will require a little more beit kenesset and beit midrash. Unlike Hayyim, who is in the “secret service,” I hope you will join me as we focus on both the heart and the mind, and we continue our collective journey in search of connection, community, and qedushah, holiness.
Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur, 9/23/15.)