I grew up going to Friday night services at our synagogue weekly with my family. We sat in the front row and I sang along enthusiastically as our beloved cantor chanted the prayers. Later, in high school, I continued to attend services with my family, but began to sit with a group of friends who came to services regularly. We had our own place in the sanctuary, we sang loud, and everyone knew us. After services, our group would go out for Chinese food. It was our ritual: Shabbat services and dinners, the presence of family and friends, a fixed place in the life of our congregation: these gave us a feeling of rootedness and connectedness at a generally turbulent time in our lives.
A synagogue is, at its best, just that — a place where each of us can feel that sense of rootedness and connectedness, a place where despite differences of age and experience; regardless of cultural background or class or sexual orientation or physical ability; whether we are "regulars" or newcomers, all of us can feel known and appreciated.
As we complete the Book of Numbers this week, we find the Israelites yearning for just such a place. Over the last eight weeks, our Torah readings have recorded the events of their 40 turbulent years in the wilderness. As we come to the last two portions of the book, Matot and Mas'ei, the Israelites are looking to come home.
Standing on the eastern bank of the Jordan river — the doorstep of the Promised Land — Moses prepares the people for battle with the Land's inhabitants and delineates the laws and practices that will govern their life there. He expects that members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad will cross the Jordan with the other Israelites and settle on the opposite shore. But the Reubenites and the Gadites, cattle herders by profession, resist. They tell him, the land to the east of the river "is cattle country" and "it would be a favor to us . . . if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan" (Numbers 32:4-5).
Moses resists. He worries that the Reubenites and the Gadites are trying to separate themselves from the community. He worries that they don't have the courage to engage in the conquest of the Land and aren't sufficiently loyal to God and to the Israelites' sacred mission.
Undeterred, the Reubenites and Gadites offer a bargain. They suggest, What if we serve as the "shock-troops" at the front of the caravan and help the rest of Israelites establish their settlements across the Jordan? What if we serve as the first line of defense, watching and protecting the rest of the community from enemy attack? They promise, "We will not return to our homes until the Israelites — every one of the them — are in possession of their portion" (32:18).
Knowing a good deal when he saw one, Moses accepted the Reubenites' and Gadites' offer. In doing so, we might imagine he pondered some of the questions I posed earlier: Were the doors of the Promised Land wide enough to allow the Reubenites and Gadites, with their distinctive practices and profession, room to enter? Were the boundaries of the community so narrowly constructed as to keep these well-meaning Israelites from being full and equal members?
Moses knew that there was a place for the Reubenites and Gadites in the larger fabric of the Israelite community. He just had to open his mind and heart to the possibility that their interests and the interests of the people as a whole were in sync. The Reubenites and the Gadites knew this to be the case, and they understood that their distinctive talents and skills were especially useful at a time of conquest and settlement.
The word "synagogue" has its origins in the Hellenistic culture of the ancient Mediterranean, and by the second century it came to be a "universal term" for a Jewish gathering place.1 Its Hebrew equivalent is beit keneset, literally, "a place of gathering." And we might say that the beit keneset is a place where Jews (and the non-Jews in their lives) gather regularly with one another to mark time and share in the joys and sorrows of their lives. The etymology of the word begs us to ask, who is gathering in this synagogue? Who is here and who is missing? How welcoming are we? How open are our doors? How open are our hearts?
No community is perfect; there is always room to grow. Yet this week, as we close the Book of Numbers, all us stand on the eastern shore of the River Jordan imagining how our congregations could become more open, more welcoming, more appreciative of people of different backgrounds and experiences. This week, our Torah reading invites us to ponder how we might transform our synagogues into "promised lands" of our own making.
Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale, 2005), p. 1
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation and a doctoral candidate in History at Columbia University. He is chair of the CCAR's Worship and Practice committee.