Jewish Journal


March 27, 2008

Rekindling the Fire

Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)


One of the events that undoubtedly shocked and reshaped Judaism was the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago. For nearly 300 years following that calamitous event, the Jews still entertained hopes of rebuilding it -- hopes that were translated into two almost-successful attempts of construction and several disastrous rebellions against the mighty Roman Empire.

When it finally dawned on Zealots, Pharisees, rabbis and priests alike that the Temple would not be rebuilt anytime soon, they had to look for substitutes for the central role the Temple occupied in Jewish life. The result of their understanding and efforts was that prayer became the new sacrifice, which must have caused great joy among Israel's dwindling population of domesticated animals. While the rabbis created this new system to replace the sacrifices, they also pondered the question of why we were deprived of the Temple, and their conclusion was that we did not deserve it.

The Temple and the sacrifices were only the means to achieve spiritual growth through thanking God for His blessings, reflecting on our sins and changing our ways. Once people lost sight of the goal and concentrated only on the sacrificial ritual, the Temple lost its meaning and purpose.

Fast forward 2,000 years, and here we are with our prayers, perfectly substituting the sacrifices and the Temple service with all their flaws. Regardless of denomination, the majority of shulgoers treat it pretty much like the ancient Temple. It's a kind of a deal between me and God: I came to Your House, I offered prayers, now You do Your part.

Many Jews measure one another by how often they frequent the synagogue and have created a gauging system of Jewishness per year -- once-a-year Jew, two-days-a-year Jew, etc. Yet how many devout worshippers read their siddur diligently cover to cover, including page numbers and index; spend hours in shul every day, and go to the netz (sunrise) minyan, yet their everyday life is almost devoid of spirituality?

But it's not only the congregants that fall into the ritualistic trap. The rabbis and community leaders join them in turning the synagogues into power -- rather than spiritual -- centers.

I recall one of my first meetings in Los Angeles with the rabbi of a leading Conservative synagogue. I initiated the meeting in order to bridge the factional gap and find ways of cooperation, as I believe that in order to achieve peace with other nations we have to start by pursuing inner peace within the Jewish people. The distinguished and scholarly rabbi, it turns out, was much more pragmatic than I was, and he told me to abandon my naïve dreams.

In his words: "The rabbinate is all about money. You don't upset your congregants, and I won't upset mine."

Since that conversation, I have come across so many rabbis and lay leaders who profess different shades of this ideology, and whether money, power or prestige dictate their leadership style, the main victims are their congregants.

The sin of distorting the purpose of the shul and turning it into a self-aggrandizing device was maybe the sin of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's two elder sons, who on the day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the Sinai Desert proceeded into the sanctuary to offer their frankincense without being commanded to do so, and who were immediately punished by a Divine fire that consumed their souls.

The harshness of the punishment astonished and perplexed not only the Israelites then present but all commentators for generations to come. But if we understand that what they did was an attempt to establish the Tabernacle as their own power base, bypassing Moses' authority, their father's honor and even God's will, then their death was meant to serve as a symbolic admonition to all future generations of synagogues to let these congregations serve their true purpose: the spiritual benefit and growth of the people, the ability to come closer to God, to your inner self and to other human beings.

Unfortunately, millennia later, synagogues still fight each other, vying for people and money. Some rabbis are still struggling to establish themselves as absolute rulers, zealously guarding their territorial rights, and shulgoers are still substituting the sacrifices with prayers, thinking that the mere recital of prayer suffices.

I sometimes want to tell people, "For God sake, if this is why and how you come to shul, don't come. It is not that important, and a shul like that is already destroyed. Stay home, spend time with your family, create and say your prayers in a way that will answer your individual needs and will help you grow spiritually through the process of meditation, self-judgment and positive change. Then, and only then, let us all come back to shul with a pure and genuine spark rekindling our fire."

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

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