April 8, 1999
A Place Where We All Feel at Home
Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
This past summer, while leading a Jewish Heritage tour through Central and Eastern Europe, we spent Shabbat in the beautiful city of Prague. On Shabbat morning, we prayed at the famous 13th-century Altenu Shul. The Altenu Shul is the oldest existing synagogue still functioning in Europe, and it was the place where some of the greatest rabbis of all time preached.
As we were leaving the shul following Shabbat services, a gentleman from Silver Spring, Md., whom I had met the night before, came over to me and said: "Everyone this morning saw something else in this shul. Some saw the architecture, others, the old furniture, but I know that you saw something that no one else saw, and I know what that is?" I was a bit surprised with his comment, so I asked him what he meant. He told me with total certainty, "You saw only what a rabbi can see: 700 years of synagogue members complaining and fighting."
In every joke, there is always an element of truth, and this story is no different. Our rabbis in the Midrash actually sensed this very fact when commenting on the description of the sacrifices offered by Moses during the eight-day dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. It was the final day, and the Torah records that Aaron brought numerous sacrifices. Some of the sacrifices were for himself, while others were brought on behalf of the nation. The Torah tells us that the sacrifices for the Congregation of Israel were "...a he-goat for a sin offering, and a calf and a sheep in their first year, unblemished, for a burnt offering (Leviticus 9:3).
The Midrash in Torat Kohanim discusses the significance of these sacrifices, claiming that the calf obviously served as atonement for the Golden Calf, since that sin had occurred just months before the Tabernacle was dedicated. But what atonement did the he-goat represent?
The Midrash suggests that it was an atonement for a terrible sin that occurred centuries earlier. When Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, they slaughtered a he-goat and dipped Joseph's coat into its blood to make it look as if he were killed by wild animals. It's that incident, claims the Torat Kohanim, that Aaron atoned while dedicating the Tabernacle.
And, yet, we must ask, What does the sin of the sale of Joseph have to do with the Tabernacle dedication service? What relevance did one have for the other? Perhaps the answer lies in realizing the true message and mission of every house of worship, from the Tabernacle to synagogues today. A synagogue is supposed to create an environment where all Jews feel at home. It isn't supposed to be a place where anyone feels alienated, and jealousy isn't supposed to exist.
The sale of Joseph represents what occurs when brothers bicker and fight. It is the story of jealousies ruining lives, rather than love preserving them. To our own day, synagogues must address this issue. Commenting on King David's beautiful verse in Psalms -- "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers also to dwell together" (133:1), -- Rashi explains that this is a reference to the Holy Temple when Jews will act as one family. If that happens, notes Rashi, then God will "dwell together" with us.
It is our mission to make our synagogues houses of prayer, where each Jew can feel at home. When we accomplish this, then we have achieved the biblical image of sanctuary.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.