Did you know that, according to the Midrash (commentary), gold was only created to beautify the Beit Hamikdash, our holy temple in Jerusalem. That’s right. It wasn’t created to sit in Fort Knox or to stabilize the world’s currencies or even for commodity traders to make the occasional windfall. And it was most definitely not put on this earth to adorn our bathroom sink handles. The rabbis taught that if the community could easily afford it, even the floors of the Beit Hamikdash should be paved with gold!
This week’s parsha (bible portion) deals with the construction of the first Mishkan (tabernacle), the portable temple in the days of Moses and we read of much attention to detail. Gold, silver, copper and other precious metals were donated by the Israelites to create a beautiful dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Similarly, we are taught to beautify all our mitzvahs (commandments). Silver crowns for the Torah, a fine-looking Menorah, a handsome Etrog Box, these are but some of the ways we show respect for that which is sacred in our lives.
Now, obviously, G-d doesn’t need our gold and silver. But from our side we ought to make that which is important to us as beautiful as possible. A Shul can be a humble hut but we need to demonstrate what our values are and where our priorities lie. To give honour and glory by beautifying His Holy House is one way of paying homage to G-d and thereby acknowledging the source of all our blessings.
The late Chief Rabbi LI Rabinowitz once penned an eloquent contrast between the ‘cathedral’ type synagogue over which, ironically, he himself presided and the simple little chassidic shtibl of old. Everything was elegant and pristinely clean in the glorious domed Great Synagogue while the unadorned shtibl was anything but grand. On the one hand, the residue of the kichel, herring and schnapps on the tables at the back didn’t exactly inspire reverence for the celestial. And yet, wrote Rabinowitz, there was a certain spirit there that was lacking in the formal synagogues. There one could sense the scent of a sincere genuine prayer, hear a heartfelt yiddishe krechtz (Jewish sigh) and be warmed by a special sense of chaverschaft and camaraderie.
Nevertheless, we should be asking ourselves whether we are paying enough attention to the state of our synagogues. Would we accept that our private properties be as poorly maintained as we do for G-d’s property? Why is it that in our own homes the bathrooms are not only clean but Italian-tiled while the Shul facilities are all too often a shameful schmutz (dirt)?
I remember getting a call one day from a wealthy man who had just finished building a magnificent new home. He asked whether it was true that all the doorways in the home required a mezzuzah. When I answered in the affirmative, he complained bitterly at the high cost of mezzuzahs. Frankly, I had little sympathy knowing how many millions he had just spent on the house. Never mind the building costs; for every latest gadget and accessory he had money – but for the mezzuzahs suddenly finance was a problem. We go out to posh restaurants and spend lavishly to dine out in style – and then complain bitterly about the price of kosher food. We will happily pay fortunes for the Bar Mitzvah or wedding party with all that goes with it and then resent why the Shul charged as much as it did for the Chupah (wedding canop y)or why we were asked for a donation on the Bimah (synagogue altar). The caterers, florists, musicians, printers, party coordinators, entertainers etc all make a living on the simcha, and the Shul that was responsible for the main event is an afterthought.
My Shul President once told me that once, before Rosh Hashanah, he was seeing congregants who wanted to book seats for the High Holy Days. One woman asked to be subsidized. When he asked her about her circumstances and why she had fallen on hard times, she replied that she hadn’t at all. Why then was she requesting a discount on the normal fees? It turned out that she discovered that her sister-in-law had been subsidized. So if discounts were going, she wanted one too.
I know it is a long-standing Jewish tradition to drive a hard bargain and make sure you get value for money and why not look for a metziyah (bargain) if you can find one? But that should not apply to our religious, educational or communal institutions. Especially when it comes to the synagogue we should remember why gold was created in the first place – to decorate, adorn and beautify our places of worship. By all means, live well. Spend on yourself and your family and enjoy. But let us try and give at least equal respect to the House of G-d.