Sermon: Among us or Above us

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 February 2018

I have long been certain that there is no such thing as coincidences on holiday. The first time Nicola and I went to Cape Town and took the cable car up Table Mountain we stepped out and bumped into Nicola’s first cousin, Clare. We had no idea that she was also in South Africa, nor she that we were. We were all amazed by what seemed to be a coincidence.

But was it? I mean if you are a comfortably off North West Londoner then some time in your life you are going to want to go visit South Africa: it’s a beautiful country. If you visit South Africa you are going to want to visit Cape Town. If you go to Cape Town as a middle class North West Londoner you are going to want to go up Table Mountain. If you go up Table Mountain you are going to want go at around 10-11 in the morning so you have time for breakfast in the hotel and plenty of time up on the mountain. If you are a reasonably sociable North-West Londoner in the Jewish community you are likely to have a few hundred friends, family members and acquaintances that you know, who want sometime in their life to do the same touristy thing as you. So really the question is not what an amazing co-incidence that we bumped into Nicola’s cousin Claire but rather, who that I know will be somewhere on Table Mountain when I finally get to visit there?

Now was this holiday encounter from a few weeks ago a real co-incidence? Nicola and I love travel and this winter break had the very fortunate chance to visit South East Asia. Now when you visit South East Asia you are probably going to want to go to Cambodia as we did, and when you are there you are going to want visit Ankgor Wat and the staggering series of Buddhist and Hindu Temples preserved in the jungle from five to eight hundred years ago, especially if you are very interested, as I am, in religion in all its manifestations. And if you do so you are going to need to stay in a hotel in the nearby town of Siem Reap. If you are not that well off you are going to stay in one of the three-star hotels in the centre of the city. So was it really an incredible coincidence when Nicola and I came down to breakfast in our hotel, queued up for the morning noodle soup and found ourselves in the queue with Rabbi Danny and Chani Smith, dear colleagues from Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue? We had no idea they were in Cambodia and vice versa.

We were able to compare our impressions of the Temples we had visited and inevitably the contrast between the extraordinary grand temples of Cambodia and our Synagogues. You see, these temples were almost all built as if they themselves were mountains, with gods at their top. They were built this way to contain a pantheon of Hindu gods or a venerated statue of the Buddha, situated in the middle of their cities, which once surrounded them, as if to protect them. They were not built for people to worship in, although nowadays they do – rather they were built for gods to live in.

This Shabbat we enter the series of five Torah portions which begin with the words: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Let them (the Israelites) make me (God) a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.”

How similar was this sanctuary, known as the Mischcan, to the Cambodian mountains of God – the tallest which, Angkor Wat reaches over two hundred feet, over 60 metres high? One major contrast in that the Mischan – this original Jewish sanctuary for God is flat – not a mountain. Though at the end of the five portions we are told that a pillar of cloud emanated up from it, the sanctuary where God dwells in Jewish understanding is not tall, not up above you.

That is because of an important nuance in the Jewish understanding of God and the Divine, in contrast to the religions of South East Asia. God in Judaism does not tower above us – God does not need to represented in something massive – rather God says v’shachanti b’tocham – God does not dwell in the sanctuary, but rather, b’tocham, dwells amongst us.

It is what we do that brings the presence of God to us not what we build. Now the Jewish version of the grandeur of Angkor Wat still exists at least as a wall in Jerusalem. Solomon’s Temple, according the description in the chapter from which our Haftarah was taken (1 Kings 8) was huge and impressive and was on a mountain. But once you got to the top of Mount Zion it too was essentially flat. Where the regular people stood was the same level as where the High priest stood. God, as it were dwelt among them all. That may not have been the grand King Solomon’s intention: he is reported as saying in this chapter at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, addressing God: “I have surely built you a house to dwell in, a settled place for you to live in forever” (1 Kings 8:13). Solomon changed the language of the Torah which had said that the purpose of a Jewish place of worship was for God to dwell amongst us, not to hold and image of God dwelling within the building.

But then when this Temple was destroyed, and also throughout the time of the second Temple, another way of Jewish community gathering that brought the presence of God back to the level for all to access, came into existence. This was the small sanctuary, the Synagogue, like our one (Ezekiel 11:16). And also by the hospitality of the smallest sanctuary, the mikdash me’at of the Talmud (Chagigah 27a), the home and the table around which we celebrate Shabbat and festivals, especially Pesach by gathering with our loved ones and with anyone we invite in. It is as if Jewish community is really about becoming a place where God can feel at home.

A Jewish poet, Syd Lieberman, put it beautifully in a poem he wrote, named after the central Jewish prayer of every Jewish service, “A Short Amidah”. It is included in a number of Jewish prayerbooks, starting with that of the Reconstructionist movement. Leiberman imagines God feeling at home in any Jewish home that invites God in:

But in that small chamber,
for just a few moments on Sabbath,
God and I can roll up our sleeves,
put some schnapps on the table,
sit down together, and finally talk.

Lieberman’s poem is in a long Jewish tradition of asserting that God for Jews does not abide in grand places, great temples, on high mountains but rather in regular human interactions carried out for the sake of lovingkindness, justice or learning.

From the Talmud: “When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah, God’s presence, rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b), “where two people study together that is where the presence of God can be found” (Avot 3:3), “when three create a Beit Din for justice there too the presence of God can be found” (Berachot 6a).

To me this is part of the genius of Judaism, enabling us to live a people dispersed over the earth in building Synagogues that develop and meet the needs of communities rather than buildings intended to glorify an image of God. It has kept us alive as a people for thousands of years through good times and catastrophe. For a Jew to feel the presence of God you just need to act Jewish, preferably together with other people wherever you may be. The Talmud puts it this way: “Wherever the Jewish people has been dispersed the Divine presence has accompanied them” (Megillah 29a).

Perhaps at times it can be hard to feel. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, is said to have prayed in the fields and forests because he felt the synagogues of his time were so full of big egos that the presence of God was pushed out.

The presence of God in Judaism is not experienced as a mountain to climb, nor a building that represents a mountain. The grandeur of a Table Mountain or a huge Cambodian Temple may feel inspiring and impressive, but can never replace for a Jew the inspiration of being truly in community – with one person feeling held, two people in study, three in pursuing justice, ten in praying, a whole Synagogue community in nurturing care, learning and worship together.

It is no coincidence that our Synagogues are flat, with only a little ascent to bring our little piece of Mount Sinai to us, in the Ark containing the Torah. It enables us truly to see in each other the presence of God. May we week after week, day after day continue to find the presence of God among us.