Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Feb 27, 2021
In chapter 28 of Exodus/Shmot, we learn about the garments of the priests of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle (and eventually the Temple). While they may be functional garments, their form is VERY elaborate. They are not modern or simple, but elaborate, jewel-covered, shiny, glittery, resplendent! Gold, purple, blue, crimson. Gem stones representing the tribes. Gold, gold and more gold! Aaron was walking around as shiny as the inside of Fort Knox!
Chapter 30 describes the altar. Made out of acacia wood, it is overlaid with pure gold. It has gold rings, gold horns, gold decorations. The altar, the place where sacrifices were offered; the locale for the main communications to God was not a Home Depot or Big N’ Cheap altar. It was a Nieman Marcus/Tiffany’s altar. It had style!
Last week we read about the plans for the construction of the Tabernacle. While not every piece was gold or precious metals, gemstones, and valuable threads and materials were woven throughout. It was an awe-inspiring place.
It makes me think about synagogue and church architecture. While there are myriads of styles and forms, I think the biggest choice is between cathedrals and simple prayer spaces. Do we make our shuls huge and ostentatious—like Temple Emmanuel or Central Synagogue in Manhattan or simple spaces like a New England country church. Do we prefer white clapboard or gilded everything?
Or do we choose a third option—a synagogue like ours? In many ways it is a compromise solution. We have the beauty of the stained glass, the space to expand into a magnificent ballroom, yet it is also more intimate. It is designed to bring us closer together—when COVID doesn’t keep us sitting so far apart.
Our parsha pushes in the direction of elaborate beauty. It’s architecture was unique, but also in the styles of its times. I wonder what it would look like if the Torah was given today. Would the Temple look like the Guggenheim or Emmanuel? Both are vast, but in very different ways!
For me, the biggest challenge with this parsha (and how it relates to our own construction) is how we interpret it. We might interpret the parsha to say that every shul should be a Temple, should be over-the-top, extravagant. I believe that is incorrect. We have to recognize not only our community and its needs in the building of our buildings, but also the atmosphere that we are trying to create.
While form is important, the function is, too. The elaborate clothing Aaron wore had a function. Not only did it show his role, it also helped him communicate with God. Although the rabbinic commentators did not entirely understand the methodology, the breastplate of Aaron served as a communication device with God. Through the Urim and Thummim, which were placed inside the breastplate, Aaron had his own satellite phone to God, helping him to render decisions for the people Israel. Some commentators even suggest that the gemstones lit up as a way for Aaron to discern the Divine Will.
Around the altar, the gold served not only as decoration, but also as a method to transport the ark. Decorative handles also served a purpose. The design of the altar was such as to assist in the sacrificial process. While the form was beautiful, it was very functional.
The Aron Kodesh was gilded inside and out. As you may have heard me say at funerals, this teaches a spiritual lesson, we must have integrity, to ensure that our outsides match our insides. We must not only speak our values, but live them.
In our own synagogue spaces, we have to remember the functions, in addition to the form. We have to make sure that we construct spaces that fit their environment, with the appropriate insulation, windows, heating and cooling systems for their climate. We have to make sure our shuls have the acoustics for the type of worship we desire—whether lay or clergy led—whether from the bimah or the pews.
Finally, we must be aware of the costs of our choices, both current and future expenses. When do we need to spend more now to save on maintenance later? When do we scale down too much and forget about the importance of majesty, or awe?
Standing in our holy space, I am grateful to the many of you who planned this building. The choices you made have stood up well. While we do have maintenance expenses, the design remains sound. So far it has stood the test of time--even as our current needs are different than those of the past. While I cannot predict what the future will hold, I look forward to being here for it.
Last week I was blessed to be able to participate in the beautiful mitzvah of welcoming a ger toshav, of bringing a new soul into the covenant of our people. Since the Gulf waters were chilly, we schlepped to Maitland for mikvah. I have been told we are piped for one here--maybe in the years to come we can finish it and welcome many more new Jews--right here at CBI!