Ki Tissa: The Sin of Building Synagogues for Others to Use; and the Irony of “Holy for YOU!”

February 27, 2016

In this parashah, we have the basis for metaphor of marriage to understand our covenant.  The covenant of marriage is about participating in a marriage, not saying you bought a house and provided material things and then your job is done.  In the parashah, God interrupts the instructions for building the sanctuary and emphasizes the use of the sanctuary for Shabbat and holidays and the activities within: the building is nothing but a means toward manifesting God in the activities.  God doesn't "live" there when we are not there, appreciative of the house we built for God!  The latter thinking, that God is in space, is actually the sin of the Golden Calf:  when God is in space, the building is important.  When God exists in time, then the activities are important. When we build synagogues for others to use and not ourselves, we are committing the sin of the golden calf which is believing holiness is in the house and not in our fidelity through participating within it.  There is no mythical Jewish Wayfarer on the street in need of a shul, or some Holocaust refugee needing a shul because theirs was burnt down, so that we must build it for them and leave.  We must participate in the life the synagogue ourselves or we commit the sin of the golden calf.  In an interesting twist on the whole idea of holiness, "holy" is also a word to describe things that are off limits to us, like the holy incense (in the parashah preceding the Golden Calf incident) and the holy First Fruits and tithes (listed right after the Golden Calf incident).  I provide a twist on Rav Hisda's Talmudic teaching that when you don't actively keep the Sabbath, everything you touch becomes "holy," meaning you shouldn't have anything to do with them ever again.  When you build a synagogue but won't keep Shabbat, you've made it so "holy" that you never have anything to do with it again.  I use Yesheyahu Leibovitz to make the point.

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