Jews never do anything by halves – particularly, when it comes to celebrations. As many of you will know, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha-Shanah, falls in the autumn – but actually, there are several new years in the Jewish calendar, including, the New Year for trees in the late winter and the New Year for months, in the spring. Each New Year has its own specific purpose. The same can be said for each of the celebrations of our new building. On Shabbat Chanukkah, the Sabbath in the Festival of Chanukkah, December 12, 2015, the congregation celebrated our return to 6 Lansdowne Road and took possession of our new home – every inch of it – for a day of joy and fun. Today, we have opened our doors to the wider community. The message of this day of celebration is one of hospitality and welcome. We are delighted to see guests and friends from the wider Jewish and interfaith communities, and look forward to welcoming you again to our services, study programmes and social and cultural activities. The synagogue magazine is called Open Door because the door of the synagogue is open to all those, who wish to participate with us.
This congregation was established in 1935 at 29 New Church Road, Hove, and officially inaugurated almost exactly 80 years ago, in March 1936. The congregation then moved to 6 Lansdowne Road in 1937, and the building was consecrated on September 18, 1938. For those who have been members for many decades , saying goodbye to our congregational home that had served us was so long was very hard – and our service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, October 8, 2011 was particularly poignant because it was the last service in the old building. And yet, although we did not know quite where our journey would lead, we set off together on a new adventure. We are eternally grateful that during the 50 months we were homeless, we could rent accommodation for our weekly Shabbat morning services at the Ralli Hall Jewish community centre, which became a home away from home. And now here we are, making a new beginning.
Jews don’t do anything by halves – and rabbis never miss an opportunity to connect whatever we are doing, to the weekly portion from the Torah – the Five Books of Moses. The Torah portion for the current week, which has just commenced, is T’rumah, so-called, because ‘t’rumah’ is the first significant word that distinguishes the portion from all others. T’rumah is also about beginnings, and at Exodus chapter 25 (:1-8), we read about the beginning of the building of the mishkan in the wilderness – literally, the ‘dwelling place’; better known as the tabernacle:
The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites that they shall take for Me an offering – t’rumah – from each person whose heart is willing you shall take My offering. / And this is the offering which you shall take from [what is] with them: gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats hair; ram skins dyed red and dolphins skins, and acacia wood; / oil for the lighting, spices for the anointing oil and the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the cape and for the breast piece. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them [my emphasis] – V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.
Last week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, concludes with an image of the Eternal ‘dwelling’ on Mount Sinai. This week’s portion, T’rumah, outlines how, through the construction of the mishkan, the ex-slaves created the context for the Eternal to dwell among them. For some people the Eternal resides in remote places and on mountain tops. For Jews, the Eternal is to be encountered in the midst of community.
On one level, the opening passage of T’rumah outlines the different materials required for the construction of the sanctuary – mikdash – the sacred domain of the Eternal on earth. But these verses also suggest that the sanctuary – elsewhere, the mishkan – is not simply an elaborate abode for the Divine, it is the locus of a co-operative endeavour: ‘Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’ – ‘among them’, not in it. The construction of the Tabernacle was an exercise in community building in which each individual offered their special gifts with a willing heart, and each gift, with its particular and unique qualities, was equally valued and needed.
Like the glorious mishkan in the wilderness, the construction of this new synagogue has required skilled builders and craftspeople for both the building itself and for all its furnishings. And like the mishkan, our wonderful new building is not simply an end in itself; it is the locus of community. The Torah includes many words for offerings. One of these is minchah, which also means, ‘gift’. Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day, and the afternoon service is referred to as minchah, recalling the minchah offering presented in Temple times. We have this beautiful new building today because, like the craftspeople who built the mishkan, and all the individuals, who brought their offerings of free will, for its construction, many, many people in addition to those involved in the building itself, contributed the gifts of their talent, skill and time, as well as their financial contributions. Our wonderful new synagogue is also a gift in itself – a gift to be shared.
The word ‘synagogue’, from the Greek, is a translation of the Hebrew word, k’hillah, meaning ‘assembly’. A synagogue is the people, who congregate together – and in the case of BHPS the wondrously diverse collection of individuals, with different backgrounds and life situations, who bring themselves and their wondrously varied gifts to our shared endeavours. When it came to creating a new Aron Ha-kodesh, Holy Ark, for our new building, we chose to build the one before you with its rainbow hues in order to celebrate our rainbow congregation, and all the individuals, with their varying talents and skills, interests and concerns, who, by coming together make congregational life possible.
Our new Ark also proclaims a message of welcome to all those, who wish to journey with us or alongside us. A synagogue is not a building. However, when the congregation is fortunate enough, as we are to have a home, then, according to Jewish tradition, in addition to being a beit t’fillah, a ‘house of prayer’ and a beit midrash, a ‘house of study’, that home is a beit k’neset, a ‘house of meeting’, which brings people in to celebrate together, support one another, and to volunteer our services, both for our own benefit and in order to enhance the life of others.
Our service today will conclude with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The sound of the shofar issues a proclamation. We read in Yitro, the Torah portion before last, that when the people were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder, proclaiming the revelation of the Eternal. In the Book of Leviticus, in the portion, B’har, we learn that the shofar was to be sounded at the beginning of the 50th year, on Yom Kippur, after the seven cycles of seven years, to proclaim d’ror, freedom, for all the inhabitants of the land. Within the cycle of Jewish life, the shofar is also sounded several times on Rosh Ha-Shanah, when it calls us to remember our deeds of the past year, and turn our lives around. The sacred season then concludes with a single great blast of the shofar – a t’ki’ah g’dolah – at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Again, Jews don’t do anything by halves. Today, the blast of the shofar at the end of this service will proclaim that our new congregational home is open for business – the sacred business of bringing people together to share our gifts and to generate a generous and inclusive community that extends beyond these walls.
I began by speaking about beginnings. Jews are fond of reciting blessings, and a favourite is the one recited for new beginnings. So, let us celebrate this moment with the words of the Shehecheyanu blessing:
Baruch Attah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu, v’higi’anu laz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are you, Eternal One, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this time. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut – Congregation of Peace and Friendship
7 February 2016 – 28 Sh’vat 5776
- See the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1 and the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Ha-Shanah 2a. The Mishnah is the first rabbinic code of Jewish law, edited c. 200 CE. The Babylonian Talmud was edited c. 500 CE. ↑
- Exodus 24:16. ↑
- See Chapter 11, ‘Empowering Individuals and Creating Community’ in Trouble-Making Judaism. ↑
- See Leviticus 2:4-16. M’nachot (the plural of minchah) is the name of a tractate of the Mishnah, and of the Babylonian Talmud. In the tractate B’rachot, ‘Blessings’, in both the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, we find the discussion of the prayer-times, including, minchah, the afternoon prayer. See Mishnah B’rachot 4:1, Talmud B’rachot 26a. ↑
- Exodus 19:19. ↑
- See Leviticus 25:8-13. ↑
- See the liturgy for Rosh Ha-Shanah – for example, Machzor Ruach Chadashah, the High Holy Day prayer book of Liberal Judaism, pp.138-153 (Liberal Judaism, London, 2003). ↑