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Finding the Lights

What follows is the story I shared on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This morning, I offer a Jewish story.

In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople. He was a very wealthy man and wanted to use his fortune to enrich the community for years to come. After much consideration, he decided to build a synagogue.

He told the townspeople what he had set out to do and everyone became really excited. “But there’s one condition,” he said, “You cannot see the plans for the building until it is completely finished.”

Soon the work began with architects and craftsmen working for days on end. Materials were carted in and there was a constant racket as they worked. But as the nobleman warned, no one was allowed to see what was being designed inside. After this went on for weeks, everyone began to wonder what their new synagogue would look like. Would it be like that first sanctuary in Jerusalem with gold and silver, crimson, and blue? Would it have a huge menorah, an eternal flame, stained glass windows? Would the seats be in rows or in the round, the bimah high or low? The Ark rounded or square?

The people could hardly wait to see what was being built for them!

Finally, after several months—now you know for sure it’s a fictional story, an announcement went out that the synagogue was completed, and a great cheer erupted across the town. The nobleman called everyone to come as he would finally reveal what the synagogue looked like.

When the people came and started to look around, they marveled at its beauty and how perfectly it was designed. They sanctuary was exquisite, the ark awe-inspiring. There were even corners, nooks and crannies everywhere in which the townspeople could gather. It was a good kibbitzing kind of congregation. The ark was indeed inlaid with gold, the huge menorah glistening, and the stained-glass windows bursting with color.

But as the sun was setting, the synagogue began to grow quite dark and someone asked, “Where are the lamps? How will this place be lit? How will we see the words in our prayerbooks at night?”

“Aha! I’m glad you asked,” said the nobleman. He pointed to brackets, which had been placed on the walls throughout the synagogue building. Then he began to give every family in the town a lamp, which they were to bring with them and light each time they came to the synagogue.

“Each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be unlit. This is to remind you that whenever you do not show up, especially when the community needs you, when your fellow members require your presence, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

A beautiful story, that offers a powerful message. Yet, this may seem like a strange story to share on this Rosh Hashanah given that you cannot be here in our synagogue. But it may be the most important story we could share this year. Here is why.

If you think a synagogue is a building, then you are wrong. We are a synagogue—even though this year we are gathered in many different homes. We are a congregation—most especially this year. We are a community. We are a kehillah kedoshah—a holy community because of the light we offer each other and the light we can bring to the world. Of course, the light burns brighter when we are together, when we are dancing and singing together, but the light of our congregation must never remain confined to these walls. It must reach out to one another. We must always care for one another. We must bring the light to others.

It is a curious thing that for most of my twenty some odd years of serving as your rabbi we did not have a building and a sanctuary of our own. We wandered throughout the North Shore of Long Island observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays and rejoicing at simchas. But those years taught me the most important lesson I would ever learn and the teaching we might most need for this moment.

It is you that makes a synagogue.

I know you are missing this place on this day most especially, but don’t let anyone ever tell you that it is only here where Jewish life is most felt. The lights that illumine our synagogue community are exactly where you sit. Hold on to that. Allow that light to lift you up and carry you to a year of peace, renewal and most of all, health. Shanah tovah.