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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Too big to maintain

Sukkah 37

The board of a colleague’s synagogue had called a general meeting of the membership.  The big question for the congregation was: Is it time to downsize?
“But we have such a gorgeous shul!” exclaimed Mrs. Rosenberg.
“That’s true,” the president responded, “but it’s just way too big for our present needs.  We can no longer afford to maintain it.  It’s costing us a fortune just to heat the building.”
“So why did we build such a fancy building?” asked Mr. Garisnovich.

Rabbi Yehuda teaches that “we may only bind the lulav with its own kind,” i.e. when we bind the lulav to the myrtle and willow branches, we may not use a foreign substance; the material must come from one of those three species.  Rabbi Meir permits any tie, citing the story of the prominent Jerusalemites who would use gold thread to tie up the lulav!

“That’s your proof?” retorts Rabbi Yehuda and the other rabbis, “They would actually bind it with its own kind beneath” the gold thread.  First they would bind it properly with a kosher tie from one of the three acceptable materials and then they would beautify the mitzvah by utilizing gold thread on top.

If the illustrious Rabbi Meir could miss the fact that they had the kosher tie underneath, how much more so lay onlookers!  And not just outside observers, how about the kids of these Jerusalemites? 

No doubt the first and second generations understood and appreciated what the original intent was – to do the mitzvah properly and then to embellish it.  But subsequent generations probably saw these gold ties and, like Rabbi Meir, assumed that one could tie up the lulav with gold.

The synagogue must be the grandest, most elegant structure in the city.  The Jews of yesteryear made great sacrifices in their personal lives to build beautiful shuls.   They understood the purpose of the synagogue – as a centre for spirituality – and felt that G-d’s sanctuary should look awesome.

Sadly, however, with the passage of time, their descendants lost this appreciation.   The original builders built golden shuls because they valued the ‘underlying mitzvah.’   But their grandchildren built golden shuls because they mistakenly believed that the exterior appearance was of prime importance, forgetting the ‘underlying’ purpose of G-d’s sanctuary.

And so by the time we arrive at the next generation of grandchildren, they have lost all sense of value, both external and internal.  They are not interested in participating in synagogue life, let alone investing in synagogue grandeur.   They would rather invest in embellishing art galleries and other institutions.

And so we are left with empty, gorgeous buildings that we can no longer maintain.

The same is true in our personal lives.  When we focus on the external embellishments of our heritage, it should come as no surprise when our children decide to invest their energy and interests elsewhere.  If Rosh Hashanah is about the silver honey dish and Passover is about the golden matzah tray, then we’ve lost sight of our ultimate purpose and direction.   The underlying message has long been forgotten and our children forsaken.

The Almighty wants us to perform the mitzvos in the most beautiful way possible.  But such embellishment must never come at the expense of the underlying spiritual meaning. 

With each mitzvah that you do, ask yourself, ‘Am I impressing upon my children the true meaning of this mitzvah, or have I shifted the focus to externalities?’  You have a duty to impart the true inner beauty of the mitzvah to your children and the next generation. 

Then our heritage will be forever beautiful and sustainable!