HOME AWAY FROM HOME
The end of our Torah portion, Behar, deals with the circumstance of an impoverished Jew who is sold as a servant to a non-Jew.
The end of our Torah portion, Behar, deals with the circumstance of an impoverished Jew who is sold as a servant to a non-Jew. The second-to-last verse of the portion deals with the prohibition to worship idols, stating, "You shall not make idols for yourselves, and you shall not erect for yourselves a statue or a pillar, and in your land you shall not emplace a flooring stone upon which to prostrate oneself -- for I am Hashem, your G-d" (Leviticus 26:1). The Sforno, a major commentator of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explains that this verse directly relates to the preceding discussion about the servant. The admonition is directed to the Jew who has been hurled out of his homeland, to be a slave to someone who worships idols. The Jew is told to understand that although Hashem sees it fit to bring about this situation, he must not despair. Hashem has not rejected him ("I am Hashem your G-d"); so too the Jew must not reject Hashem by worshipping other gods. This, in fact, is also how the Sforno interprets the very last verse of the portion; "My Sabbaths shall you keep and my holy places shall you awe, I am Hashem." The Torah commands that even as you are in exile, away from your homeland, you should still observe Shabbat. Even in exile, after the destruction of the Temple, you should treat the local synagogues and houses of study with awe and respect.
The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 8a) sharpens this idea. It relates that Rabbi Yochanan, a renowned scholar, was puzzled by the fact that there were old people living in Babylon. After all, contended Rabbi Yochanan, doesn't the verse state (Deuteronomy 11:21), "In order to prolong your days and the days of your children upon the land [of Israel] that Hashem has sworn to your forefathers to give them." How then could there be old people outside of the promised land? Once Rabbi Yochanan was informed that these Babylonians attended the synagogue for morning and evening services, he understood what enabled them to live long. Although this entire account deserves much attention and careful reading to be understood properly, one simple equation clearly emerges from the passage.
The Talmud is telling us that the synagogues outside the land of Israel are, on some level, equivalent to the land of Israel itself. It has been suggested that just as the land of Israel itself is a holy place, replete with special opportunities for mitzvot and spiritual growth, so too a synagogue is such a place. In a certain sense, every time we enter a synagogue it is as if (for a short time) we are going on "aliyah." Even in the Diaspora, a situation less than ideal, these oases of spirituality remind us of our responsibility and our connection to Hashem.
Rabbi Elie Cohen, who grew up in Atlanta, is currently studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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