The perfect shul –   Part two

A post-holiday epiphany

Yom Kippur may be over but its subtle messages are still unnerving me. I know that coveting is one of the big ten, but sadly I must admit that it took many clops on my chest during the penitential prayers to loosen the shackles of guilt. I read a Facebook post written by a prominent rabbi in the Boca community, who was excited that his synagogue attracted 35 new families, and I wondered where I went wrong.

After much soul searching I began to realize the error of my thinking. Very few people I spoke to after the holiday told me they had a life altering experience. Even fewer told me the sermons were exhilarating and the cantorial melodies propelled them to the loftiest spiritual heights. What I did hear though was far more meaningful; numerous people told me how welcoming people were and how comfortable they felt during the services. Although seats were allocated, few people actually sat in their confirmed seat; a compassionate undertone was to be sympathetic to those who may have no seat.

While I was initially impressed with 35 new families I also realized they aren’t really new families; they are merely newly relocated families. They globally repositioned their physical and religious identities to a different edifice. They had the move done by professionals and everything in the previous life was safely transported in their new environs. I began to realize there was nothing exceptional in more bodies replicating that which was already pretty well perfected. I began to see the transplantation of other communities akin to the cloning of “Dolly” or a remake of the Stepford Wives. Indeed strength in numbers may be a valuable ideal but its success often serves in diminishing an individuals’ creative spirit.

I began to appreciate the unique blessing I was granted. I finally understood that conventional wisdom is to be unconventional; and the perfect shul may be the one that can best harness a multiplicity of imperfection. It may be the shul that realizes each individual’s uniqueness is integral in elevating the whole. And when the equilibrium is slightly off, all are perpetually imbalanced. A shul’s function was never to maintain a spiritual status quo, its primary purpose is that each and every Jew will find their own means of identifying with God.

This week we celebrate the festival of Sukkot by fulfilling a mitzvah with four species. Each of the species represents a different type of person: The etrog (citroen) has both flavor and fragrance, corresponding to a person who has Torah wisdom and performs good deeds. The hadas (myrtle) has a wonderful scent but no taste, corresponding to a person who has done many mitzvot (good deeds) but lacks Torah wisdom. The lulav (palm) produces fruit but is unscented, corresponding to a person who is learned, but has few good deeds to his credit. Finally, the aravah (willow) has neither taste nor fragrance, like a person who lacks both Torah knowledge and good deeds.

On Sukkot we hold all the species together to show that although there are many different types of Jews, each person is important and has a critical role to play. But it is only when we hold it as one, adjacent to our heart that we are able to discern the beating of each individual Jewish heart. Indeed how fortunate I am to pray in a shul where the depth of difference truly represents the splendor and magnificence of Judaism.


Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,


Rabbi Jack Engel

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