My young friend's comment is very instructive. We imagine God in the image of those who teach us about God. We perceive religion in the image of those institutions that introduce us to spirituality, ritual and faith. When rabbis and teachers are distant and cold, when the rites are forbidding and strange, when the institutions representing tradition and faith are lifeless, heartless and hollow, so too the religious life we acquire is emptied of life and spirit -- remote, removed and alien. But should we encounter a community of friends, should ritual become poetry, should we find song and celebration, then a different sense of the sacred prevails.
The greatest gift a religious community can give its children is their sense of God. The troubling question is: What kind of God do our communities and institutions share with our children?
Is ours a God of love? A God who shares support and comfort in times of pain? A God who celebrates life? A God who tolerates differences? Do we offer a God who demands intellectual honesty and devoted moral commitment, a God who welcomes argument and inquiry, a God who cherishes human goodness and acts of compassion?
It is fashionable to embrace spirituality but to disdain organized religion. Probe that a little deeper and almost universally you hear tales of hard-hearted Hebrew school teachers; dull, insensitive rabbis; cold institutions.
"Once mikvahs were cold but Jews were warm," cried the Gerer Rebbe. "Now, alas, it's the other way around."
But without organized religion, how is spirituality shared? In what language are insights conveyed? How is wisdom preserved and passed to the next generation? Without religious community, what keeps spirituality from collapsing into narcissism?
The first communal religious institution in Jewish history was the Mikdash, the Sanctuary, commanded by God in this week's Torah portion. "Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them." (Exodus 25:8) The Torah, normally so parsimonious with its words, devotes fully four portions to the construction of this shrine: two portions (Terumah and Tetzaveh) meticulously delineate its design, two (Vayakel and Pekuday) describe precisely the fulfillment of each detail. Why such an obsession with detail? Why was the shrine so important?
The Rabbis found in this section of Exodus striking linguistic parallels to the story of Creation in Genesis. In their reading, Creation happened all over again, this time through human hands. God creates the physical universe. We create the social universe. God creates planets and stars, mountains and valleys. We create the institutions of human community: homes, schools, places of work and worship. Outside our walls, the world is chaotic and cynical: olam k'minhago noheg, "nature pursues its own course" according to the Talmud. Evil may triumph, dreams may be squashed, and we have little control. But within the walls of our community, we have complete control and complete responsibility. This is the world we create.
The synagogue is a model of the world as Jews would have it. It is an example we set before our children of Jewish ideals brought into life.
How easily we speak of the ethical genius of the Jewish people cultivated through millennia of devotion and reflection! How passionately we announce our commitment to Tikkun Olam, to mending and healing the world! Here, within the walls of this institution, we are challenged to produce a reality that embodies and demonstrates those ideals. And succeed or fail, our children are watching. Create a synagogue community that is loving, warm and filled with life, and they will know that our promises have merit. Fail, and they will recognize our words as hollow. The stakes are that high. "Build Me a holy place," offers God, "and I will dwell among you."
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino