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“Why It’s Time to Come Back to Shul”

This drasha is based on Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s (Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue) excellent Shabbos HaGadol Drasha which can be found here in full.


  Last week we remembered the very first seder – the Pesach Mitzrayim that our ancestors did in the land of Egypt.  What did that look like?  If we read the 12th chapter of the book of Shemos – there is a theme that is highlighted – mentioned at least 14 times!  The theme is the house – the home.  The word “Bayit” or a derivative is mentioned so often that it is clear that this is crucial. In fact, the Jews were not allowed to venture out of their homes on Seder night.  They had to stay inside – they were in lockdown!  The entire service had to be in the house – the sprinkling of the blood was done on the doors of the house – the house served as the Temple for that holiday.   
              It reminds us somewhat of the Pesach we had last year – all locked down and alone.  Thank God this year things are a lot better.  But then – we were afraid to stick our noses out the door – maybe we would catch the virus!  We just didn’t know what to think.  Two years from now we won’t remember the extent of that fear – and it will be hard to remember what it was like.  But we were in the house.
              Why did they have to be in the house for that first Pesach?  Because they were slaves. A slave is someone who doesn’t really have a home – a slave is at the beck and call of the master – a slave can’t stay home if they want to – they are forced to go whenever the master calls.  
              Where is the center of Jewish life?  It is not the shul, it is not the yeshiva, it is not the Beis Medresh, it is the home.  The way we conduct our lives at home – that is the bedrock of Judaism.  We set up our homes to be a religious place – where we study, where we sing zemiros, where we give divrei torah, where we keep mitzvos.  Others looking at our homes might say – what is going on here? It is like this is a place of worship, not a home?  Others see a distinction between the religious and the secular – the home is a place that is separation of religion and home.  But we do not.  The way we behave at home – the way we make brachos, the way we speak about others, the way we comport ourselves – that is how our children learn to behave and act.  And that is really what we are made up of.  The home in Judaism is the Kodesh HaKedoshim.  The verse from Isaiah – “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” can be understood in a homiletical way to refer to our homes – they are an example of houses of prayer for everyone when we live in them in the holy way that we do.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis tells a story that each day in Bergen Belsen they were given scraps of bread and her father would save scraps from the scraps and her mother would save morsels.  And the family would gather on Friday nights and he would say close your eyes and imagine that we are at home and that your mother has baked fresh Challahs and we are all sitting around the wonderful Shabbos table. One Friday night the family sat down and they were singing Shalom Aleichem – and one of Rebbetzin Jungreis’ brothers said – wait – Abba - but look where we are – how can we be singing Shalom Aleichem to the angels?  Open your eyes and look around at our surroundings -  where are the angels?    Her father said – my children, you are the angels of Shabbos.  Rebbetzin Jungreis said that when my father said that – we sat up straight - we soared a little higher that night.  The crucial place of Jewish life is in the home. 
But that was pesach mitzrayim – that was the Passover of Egypt.  There is also the Pesach Lidoros – the Pesach for the generations – the Pesach for all time.  The reading that we read in shul on the 8th day says the following three different times – you shall bring the Passover in the place that God shall choose to sanctify his name.  The Passover for the generations – needs to be brought in the Temple.  It cannot be brought in the house. Now that we have a strong and secure home – we need to come together – it is time to be a people – in the place I will show you.    How can we all come to the Beis Hamikdash?  Can’t fit?  Can’t have everyone eating the Passover offering in the same place?
So says the Mechilta – you make a Chaburah – you make a small group of people.  Micro Communities – can still be a community.   It’s like you have your own pod.   The Rambam makes clear that  you have to be part of a community in order to offer the Korbon Pesach.  Our people is about coming together – everyone is invited – everyone has a space and a place.  Kol Dichfin Yeisei Viyeichol – whomever is hungry come and eat.
The Rambam says yes – it is an individual korbon (offering), but it is like a communal one. 

 The Korbon Pesach – has to be as a group.  We do it to combine – to be together with one another.
R. Menachem Zemba, great leader of Polish Jewry who was killed in Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 said that we combine all those groups, all those Chaburahs, as a korbon tzibbur, as a communal offering.  We  transition from last Pesach to this one – the way that God intended it.  Last Pesach we went back to basics.  Everything I do within my home.  But now – Pesach Lidoros – a Pesach for the generations – when we open our doors.   Last year was an exception, it was an aberration.   It was not a new normal – it is history – and we need to make destiny.  To come together the way HaShem first intended.  In the Torah it tells the story of Jews who could not participate in the korbon Pesach because they were tamei (ritually impure) on Pesach and they said its not fair, we want to offer the Pesach!  We missed out. Last time in history that ever happened – “I don’t have to keep Pesach? I have an excuse? Great!!!”  What did they miss?  They missed being Bisoch Binei Yisrael – they wanted to be among the Jewish people. 
We need to be among the Jewish people.  To come together.  There are people who tell me – they don’t feel safe at shul – but they are going to work where there are no masks, or they are going to the Bucks game or to the grocery store.  It doesn’t quite add up.
Have we become more comfortable in being apart?  The Wall Street Journal wrote an article last week – “When the Pandemic’s end means the Return of Anxiety”.  Some people have gotten comfortable in their new normal and the idea of returning, even fully vaccinated and masked and distant – is now uncomfortable.   People come back to shul a little, but not like they used to.  Maybe a few days a week or a month but not all the time….
Pesach is about unity and togetherness – when we unite – and when we are one.  We need to remind ourselves how to come together.  Because when we focus only on ourselves and our little box – then we become smaller and more selfish.
Primo Levi writes about how after the Nazis departed the camp and people were able to set up an oven and bake bread – that they were able to share – that was a taste of real freedom.  Because the rule of the camp was to eat your own bread and to take your neighbors if you could.  Selfishness became the rule because of the nature of the situation.  Rabbi Soloveitchik writes about this as well.  That the people who went through the Holocaust told him that the way that the Nazis dehumanized the Jews made them selfish – they could only think about their next piece of bread.  There was no time for chesed or for mercy.  There was just room for fear.  Will I be sent to the left to work another day or to the right to the crematoria?
We need to be careful of selfishness.  We have been prisoners to this Pandemic – forced to be apart – and now we are becoming more free.   Of course we need to be careful.  I’m not saying that we should not listen to our doctors and the experts. We absolutely need to. But one thing I have seen is that everyone has their own rules.  Some are more permissive than the doctors recommend and some are much more restrictive.  What we need to do is to switch our mentality from selfishness to selflessness.  
It is time to come back.  People say – why should I?  At home -  I am the gabbai, I daven, I give the drasha and I am the rabbi – why should we come back together?  At home I always start on time – my time.  I don’t have to deal with Mishulachim coming to ask me for money? I don’t have to wait for anyone.  I don’t have to wear a mask.  I like the way the chazzan davens. I no longer feel pressure to conform to the community.  Maybe I discovered Judaism 2.0  - and things are better?    
Do you know what word permeates those discussions?  I.  I this, I that.  I feel this is better for me.  There is no “I” in shul.  There is not even an “I” in synagogue.  There is an I in community and one in rabbi – but we’ll leave that alone for now.    It is not all about I.  It is about doing for others.
There is a higher and noble reason to a part of a shul, to make a commitment to something greater.  Who do you care about and who do you want to be a part of?   Pesach gives us a model – we have a chaburah – subgroups who ate the korbon and had seder together – but they were functioning as a tzibbur, as a community.   We allow differences to flourish –but we have to come together to be one community, one kahal, one tzibbur.   We have to come together to be something greater.   Birov am hadras Melech – with a great number of people is the glory of the King.  Are we loyal like a family – and do we have shared destiny and visions as a family.  Or are we in silos or in competition?   Rav Yitzchak Hutner said that we became a family at Pesach and then God gave us a Torah and made us a part of something greater – without having to erase who we are.     A child without a family is an orphan. We have to show them mercy and compassion – but that is not something we long for.  We are a nation.  We are a spiritual family.  We come together.
When different types of people come together and talk to others and learn from others then we grow.  The peripheral relationships that we have with others are important.  People we know at work, on the softball team or at shul – play an important role in our lives even if they are people that we only partially know.  Being a part of a community allows us to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. 
We want to be a community where people show up to a funeral, even if they do not know the deceased or the mourners that well – because – when the community is suffering a loss – I want to be a part of it.  I don’t want to be left out of the community.
We can value diversity but celebrate unity. 
The Talmud says that a city that has homes that are taller than shul – the neighborhood will be destroyed.  Wonders Rav Kook – why?  Because the shul needs to cast a shadow on everyone’s home? The building and the rabbi need to be taller than everyone else? 
Rav Kook says – no, it is that the shul has to be the center – what we all connect with – what brings us together – what is bigger than ourselves.  Together – change we can make as a community – devarim shebikedusha - holy things can only be said as a tzibbur.  The repentance of a tzibbur is so much greater.  We want to be a community of learning and action and love and faith and concern and connection.  A community of shared destiny.
We need to do it as one, as a community.  Pesach Mitzrayim was a one-time thing – and so too the lockdown was a one-time thing.  But now need to come back together. 
There was a family in Israel last year who lived next door to an old couple. And the man passed away leaving the widow living next door.  Because of the pandemic like many people she was going to be completely alone.  Her neighbors, a family didn’t really know her.  They were not part of same chaburah.  But they said to her– why don’t you set up a table on your mirpeset (balcony) and we will set up one on our mirpeset and we can do the seder together.  After the holiday the woman called up her daughter and said – that it was a beautiful seder.  It was so amazing - they sang the exact same tunes as Abba used to sing.  So that even though Abba is gone – I felt like he was there.

The daughter started crying and said, Mama – your neighbors called all the children and found out all the customs songs and recorded all the tunes so they could do a seder for you as close to the one that you had experienced for 60 years.

What an amazing example of how one works on another’s behalf.
Let’s come back together – lets achieve more and do more and make more – lets reach and teach and inspire our children in ways we never have before. 
Let’s not go back to normal.  Let’s take the lessons that we learned from the pandemic, and there have been many, and let’s come back as a better community, stronger and more committed to doing good together. 
Let’s be a community of destiny.
Let’s come back to shul.


Wed, May 18 2022 17 Iyyar 5782