Posted By The Stash

When the prophet Bilaam finally decided to bless the Israelites on his own volition, after discovering that it was impossible to fulfill his mission to curse them at the behest of the King of Moav, he uttered the famous line: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Tradition has made this the first verse we recite when we enter a synagogue. Moreover, the Talmud teaches that a person is forbidden to use a room in which people pray regularly as a route from one place to the next without pausing for a moment to recite this verse. This has a very practical application: when we come to the shul office, we must walk through the sanctuary. We must pause for a moment and say this verse before going in—even to pay our dues!

Like many customs, this is but the tip of an iceberg of important practices that celebrate the “holiness of a synagogue”. There are other customs and ordinances to ensure that the purpose of the synagogue—no matter how plain or ornate—is not diminished by familiarity. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Ganzfried (which was aimed at a non-scholarly audience) also mentions that it is improper to use a synagogue as to shelter from rain or snow. Similarly, if one comes to the synagogue to pick up their friend, they should first recite a least one verse from the siddur or learn a mishna before socializing. Ganzfried also mandates cleaning clothes and even shoes from dirt when entering, forbids eating and drinking (except for ritual purposes), and inveighs against idle talk and gossip; both are to be minimized.

What we can learn from this is that even though we should feel comfortable in shul, it is “not our home” in the sense that we can relax. The holiness of the shul is based on the Torah’s injunction “you shall fear my sanctuary” which the prophet Jeremiah extended beyond fear and awe for the Temple to the reverence we should feel in the synagogue, which he calls a “beit mikdash me’at”—“a miniature version” of the Temple both architecturally and in matters of holiness. What makes our people truly holy, as the prophet Bilaam realized, was our ability to feel comfortable in shul and yet retain our sense of reverence for the place and its function. It is perhaps no accident that we read this parasha in the summer when we all feel more “laid back” and life slows down. This serves as a reminder to us that there is still room for awe and reverence side by side with everyday life. I am reminded of the story of Levi Isaac of Berditchev who was once summoned by an angry congregant who pointed to a man wearing tefillin and greasing his wagon before beginning a day’s peddling. Without missing a beat, the great Rebbe said: “How great are your people O G-d, they praise your Name even while they work in the dirt!” We need to find the balance between reverence and comfort in shul, between a few quick comments about the weather to our neighbours and singing along with the congregation. Let us pray that we find that balance, so that casual observers will exclaim joyfully about our prayers and behavior in the same way Bilaam praised the Israelites in this week’s parasha.



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