Synagogues and Purpose: A Shavuot Reflection
By Andi Rosenthal
and Cantor Adina H. Frydman
“I make this covenant … not with you alone but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not yet here with us this day.”
After the long weeks of counting the Omer, after the winter has finally surrendered in defeat, after spring has established her stronghold of warmth and blossom, we find ourselves in sacred encounter, once again, with the Jewish calendar.
When we imagine that auspicious moment of our people gathering at the foot of God’s holy mountain, the Torah’s imagery is nothing short of cinematic. Exodus, 19:16 – 20:7-8 sets the scene:
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him … Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded. All the people answered as one.”
Yes: there are many defining moments of peoplehood in the Torah, but perhaps none quite as powerful as this: The in-gathering of God’s people, establishing themselves as a covenantal community guided by the Torah, the moral compass of the day, a moral compass that will be turned to again and again in every generation to come.
Last week, writing in The New York Times, David Brooks discussed the current landscape of how people seek purpose and meaning in our modern age.
“Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy? As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions. Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against. … All of that went away over the past generation or two. These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.”
For thousands of years, Sinai stood for the Jewish moral compass, a signal that called to the Jewish people, reminding them who they were and what they had become. In our day, Sinai remains our holy mountain, but it is no longer our gathering space, morally or even physically. We do not return for the festivals; we do not gather as a people to remember who we are.
Or do we?
Brooks continues: ” … there is less moral conversation in the public square. I doubt people behave worse than before, but we are less articulate about the inner life. There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most. As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.”
For centuries, synagogues have provided spaces for Jews to remember who they are, to become who they wish to be, to contemplate difficult questions of life and loss, transition, and change. The synagogue is where we return on the holiest of days to consider our relationship with God, our community, and ourselves. But what if synagogues could become our new Sinais? What if we, as thought leaders, agents of change, and as visionary clergy, could renew the “moral ecology,” caring for it as if it were a new seed of dialogue and meaning to be nurtured?
There are leaders who do this work brilliantly every day. Our mission at SYNERGY, however, is to enable these leaders to lead the new in-gathering of our people, not only back into our brick-and-mortar spaces, but to meet them where they are, be it at the foot of the mountain, at the office, in their homes, and, of course, in the holy spaces that we create when God is present among us.
Let us remember Shavuot and its purpose. Referred to as matan torateinu, the day of the “giving of the Torah,” let us remember that our purpose is to receive it anew every day. May we encounter new ways to create sacred spaces of meaning and purpose where all who stood and all those who yearn to stand at Sinai can join together to contemplate their innermost questions.
Andi and Adina are part of the SYNERGY team at UJA-Federation of NY.