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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

September 25, 2022

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: Sacred Architecture

On a warm August afternoon, I settled into my carved wooden seat in Seiji Ozawa Hall. For the many of you who have attended a concert there at Tanglewood, go there with me for a few minutes. 

It’s a beautiful space, with three magnificent levels. The stage that day was elegantly empty, except for a grand piano and a few chairs. The wood is all natural tones, with those gorgeous columns and the cross-hatched design on all of the balconies and chairs. And of course, Ozawa Hall blends seamlessly into the landscape, with the entire back wall open to a gently sloping lawn.

I was there to attend an open workshop. Unlike most of the summer program, featuring the full symphony in the Shed, or the small groups of chamber musicians that usually perform at Ozawa, I was there for an open rehearsal of three up-and-coming cellists. Each had selected a piece to play for a packed audience. The catch? After each performance, the young cellists would receive public critique from Yo-Yo Ma.

When the first student took the stage, Yo-Yo Ma, beloved by the crowd, appeared as well, to cheers and applause. He was dressed casually, in a polo and slacks, smiling warmly. A roll of sheet music was shoved in his back pocket. “I’ve never heard this piece before,” he joked, “so we’ll learn about it together.” He motioned for the student to begin. Then he walked down from the stage and up the aisle to the back of the hall. 

After the young cellist finished his selection, Yo-Yo Ma returned to the stage, smiling again. “That,” he declared, “was a very difficult piece!” The student nodded.

“But the composer gave us a gift,” he continued. “You hear this theme, in the third measure,” he pointed, and began to hum, as the student played what was written. “It comes back, in the third section, and again, in the final section.” The student played each of the notes the master teacher indicated, variations on a melody, clearly linked. “These are our guideposts,” Ma explained. “They give us a place to come home. This melody is our symbolic architecture.”

Ma went on to instruct the student how he could construct the scaffolding of that symbolic architecture, making each repetition of that melody sound similar, yet unique. When the student played the piece again, we could hear how he highlighted and emphasized those thematic sections, the symbolic architecture of the piece. The performance was stronger, richer, and more grounded.

The symbolic architecture that Ma described that August afternoon is a doorway into our High Holy Days. Symbolic architecture, or, as I would reframe it, sacred architecture, provides us with several ways to connect to our holiest season, which we enter in earnest this evening. 

We can understand sacred architecture concretely, as the physical architecture of sacred places. We can think about it as an organizing set of concepts, ideas or rituals that provide us with direction - a kind of mental infrastructure. And we can understand it as a spiritual design, exploring the type of music, prayer, or experience that invites us to move beyond the rational, perhaps inching toward the Divine. 

Sacred architecture describes our physical houses of worship. This past summer, our weekly Torah Study group was deep in the story of King Solomon, the third king of Israel. Solomon ruled in a time of peace, enabling him to oversee significant building projects. While his father, David, was the more beloved and successful king, it was Solomon who was blessed with the responsibility of building the First Temple in Jerusalem, a grand place for centralized worship, gathering, and sacrifice. 

While no known ruins of Solomon’s Temple remain, we connect with the sacred architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem through the walls built by King Herod in a unique dolomite limestone, still visible today. If you join me on our Temple trip to Israel this winter, we will touch those stones, as pilgrims to that central place of worship did so many thousands of years ago.  

Together, our Torah Study group studied the descriptions of the intricate gold materials used to build the First Temple. We looked at an artist’s rendition of Solomon’s Temple. We compared the design to modern synagogues today, such as the ornate sanctuaries of Temple Emanu-El in New York City, and the Plum Street Synagogue in Cincinnati. 

For some of us, glittering details and dazzling designs are a key to our worship experience. For some of us, a more simple aesthetic enables us to pray. Art and architecture are crucial elements of our worship, here in our own sanctuary, and around the world. 

Even before we built fixed sanctuaries, we traveled with our mishkan, our portable place for prayer, when we wandered in the wilderness as a people, moving from slavery in Egypt to freedom in our own land. That mishkan had its own sacred architecture, not unlike the holy Temples in Jerusalem or our synagogues today. The importance of a physical place for God to dwell with us has been a core value since before we stayed in one place. Va’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham - build me a sanctuary, God says, that I might dwell among you.

At the beginning of the summer, we took a brief family trip to Canada. In Montreal, we visited the Notre-Dame Basilica, a well-known Gothic Revival church in the old section of the city. While our son, Lior, regularly visits the synagogues of the Berkshires, it had been some time since he entered another house of worship, due to the pandemic. I saw the church through his eyes that day, as we slowly walked down the aisles, decorated in blues and reds and purples, the immensely tall ceilings and stained glass windows guiding his eye up and up, making us all feel small in the cavernous space. Each and every column and wall was dripping with gold. “What is this place again?” he asked. “This is a church, where some Christians pray,” I answered. “It’s so beautiful,” Lior said, and added quickly, “but so is our Temple, Mom.”

Lior is always one to offer a compliment and to make a connection. While not a sacred place for us, the Notre-Dame Basilica inspired a sense of awe with its physical design. And that’s intentional. Sacred architecture, whether in a church, synagogue, or mosque, has its own vocabulary, which speaks to people of any faith, regardless of their ability to speak the language themselves. Whether you walk into Ozawa Hall or a cathedral, you know what that space is for, and what it should inspire in you.

Here we are, in our own sanctuary, at the beginning of a new year. Take a moment and look around. While we have celebrated Shabbat and other holidays here since the pandemic began, for nearly all of us, as we know, this is the first time since 2019 that we have been able to gather physically, in this place, to welcome in a new Jewish year. 

What are the details that make this place sacred to you? What about its design, its form, its architecture, makes 26 Broad Street a holy place? 

For me, it’s the way the light comes through the dome in the roof. Every day, every week, every season, depending on the weather, the time of day, the shape and pattern of the clouds, the light comes through differently. It is new and beautiful each time.

Throughout the pandemic, we have learned to understand what it means to worship in a palace in time, not space, of observing the same rituals and holy days in separate spaces, united across distance by setting aside the same time for prayer and reflection. Still, there is something spectacular about being together, here, physically, tonight. 

Our world has changed forever, in many ways. We are live-streaming tonight’s service and all of our worship services, to broaden our sacred community beyond these walls. And yet, it is this physical space, this sacred architecture, that is the container that brings us together. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, makom asher yivchar, the central place for worship that God chose, this is our home base, our cornerstone, our sacred place. 

Sacred architecture is not only physical. Like in the cello piece I heard this summer, with its returning theme, Jewish liturgy, prayer, and ritual have a sacred architecture of their own. Each week, we know, on Friday night, Shabbat begins. A day of rest, reflection, pausing, and peace. Shabbat is the pinnacle of the sacred architecture of our week. 

When we lose a loved one, there is a sacred architecture for how we behave. In a time of grief, we do not need to, and perhaps are unable, to make many decisions. Judaism gives us a road to walk on, a trail through the valley of the shadow of death. We seek to bury a loved one as soon as possible. Afterwards, we proceed to shiva, at our homes, or, in our pandemic reality, on zoom. We come to synagogue to say kaddish weekly. A year later, we return to the graveside for an unveiling, to remember again, and to mark that we are moving to a new phase. Our physical places and our religious rituals are intertwined, forming the sacred architecture of mourning and grief. 

As in the cello piece I heard this summer, the sacred architecture of our High Holy days returns as a repeated theme. The sacred architecture of the holidays is T’filah, Teshuva, and Tzedakah. T’filah - prayer. Teshuva - repentance and return. Tzedakah - the pursuit of righteousness, the giving of charity.

We see these essential themes laid out most clearly in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, a challenging and essential part of our High Holy Day liturgy. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. We examine our lives and think about the year ahead, praying for health, knowing that challenges may come. I will address more of the theological challenges of this prayer at Yizkor, our memorial service on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

At the conclusion of the prayer, we learn one way that we have the agency to impact what happens to us in the new year: “T’shuva, t’filah, tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzerah” - Repentance, prayer, and righteousness temper the severe decree. 

T’filah, t’shuva, and tzedakah will be our symbolic guideposts, our sacred architecture, as we make our way through the High Holy Days this year. As I do each year, these themes will create a through-line, a structure for my sermons. And this year, I invite you to look for hints of this sacred design throughout our worship together over the next ten days. How are prayer, repentance, and righteousness guideposts for you? In what ways do one or all of these concepts challenge you? And how might you open yourself up to experiencing them anew this year?

Sacred architecture can be the physical places that we share in religious experiences, or the mental model that we use to give order and form to our religious practice. But returning to the cello piece, there’s something else sacred architecture can do. It can free us to move beyond the rational structure of the music or prayer, into a place of spiritual depth. Comfortable with a familiar, repeated theme, we open ourselves up to the spiritual experiences that await us. Call it losing yourself in the music, or being in the moment. Even if it is hard for us to get to that place, we can each imagine a time when we’ve felt this way before. 

As I’ve heard my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman explain, many of our prayers were written repetitively, with excess words, similar in meaning and sound, almost becoming a kind of mantra, bringing us into a state of meditative prayer. Similarly, the guideposts of our symbolic architecture give us a place to land, and then free us up to be able to pray. 

 

This is why, on Kol Nidre, we repeat this melody three times, often incorporating instruments and voices. The repeated melody and words are our sacred architecture. And by creating that symbolic structure, we can open ourselves up to move beyond the words, to be moved by the music, to enter a place of reflection and prayer, of being rather than thinking. 

So here we are, entering a new year of 5783. The sacred gates are open, and we are all invited to walk in - physically, mentally, and spiritually. We cannot have one without the other. An empty physical sanctuary, no matter how glorious or grand, simple or beautiful, is not sacred. The physical sanctuary helps us find the sacred, and we make it sacred by being here.

The mental model, the ideas and shape of our liturgy and ritual, provide a structure and a guide to how and when we pray, how we act, what we do, how to live and pray and be as a Jew. They can be barriers, if we take the concepts at face value, or they can be doorways, if we allow ourselves to walk toward them and come inside.

And if we stick to the strict words and rituals on the pages, we will find ourselves stagnating, overanalyzing, overthinking. We will stand on the threshold, rather than allowing the walls, words, and wisdom of our tradition to carry us through the gates. With a little effort, repetition, and a reminder of that thematic melody, we can open ourselves up to the possibility of spiritual transformation this year.

The poet Adrienne Rich invites us into the sacred architecture of these High Holy Days:

 

Either you will

go through this door

or you will not go through.

If you go through

there is always the risk

of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly

and you must look back

and let them happen.

If you do not go through

it is possible

to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes

to hold your position

to die bravely

but much will blind you,

much will evade you,

at what cost, who knows?

The door itself

makes no promises.

It is only a door. [1]

We are standing at the doorway. The gates are open. We are here together. I invite you, for the first time since our lives changed forever, to come on in. Shanah tovah.
 

[1] Adrienne Rich, “Prospective Immigrants Please Note,” accessed online: https://allpoetry.com/-Prospective-Immigrants-Please-Note-

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784