Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Nitzavim/Psalm 82: The Holiness of the Synagogue


Psalm 82: The Holiness of the Synagogue


This chapter, which demands a just society, opens by noting the holiness of the congregation:

"God stands in the congregation of the Almighty." [Ps. 82:1]

According to the Talmud , this is true not only for the entire people of Israel, but for each gathering of worship. "From here we learn that the Holy One is to be found in the synagogue" [Brachot 6a].

The essence of prayer is a private matter, as the soul turns inwards. Why did the Sages place such importance on public prayer? Why did they emphasize the synagogue as a holy place where God may be found?

The Constancy of the Collective

The strength of the collective lies in its stability. Once the community has been set on the correct path, it will not veer from it. Individuals are unpredictable; people undergoing changes of heart and direction. But the community will always remain faithful to its ideals, as it says, "My spirit that is on you.. will not leave your mouth or the mouth of your descendants.. from now and to eternity" [Isaiah 59:21].

This quality of steadfastness is a Divine attribute. "I, God, have not changed" [Malachi 3:6]. The aspect of immutability, of remaining faithful to the good, is the Godly quality of the synagogue, a designated location where the congregation assembles for positive goals.

The scholar who emphasized this facet of the community was Hillel. He would admonish:

"Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death." [Avot 2:5]

These two warnings share a common insight into human nature. Individuals do not stay forever in the same state; they can grow, and they can deteriorate. As an extreme example, the Sages noted the case of a high priest who became a heretic after eighty years of devoted service in the holy Temple [Berachot 29a]. Since we can not fully rely on ourselves, we should take care not to separate from the community. We need to be part of the community in order to offset the instability inherent in individuals.

Thus, the Hebrew word for a synagogue is not "Beit Tefillah" (house of prayer), but "Beit Kenesset" (house of gathering). The Greek word synagogue also means "place of assembly". Its holiness stems from its use as a gathering place for the community.

Standing Firm

The verse says that "God stands ("nitzav") in the congregation of the Almighty." The word nitzav indicates a fixed state. The holiness of the congregation comes from its constancy in pursuing its ideals and aspirations.

Similarly, when describing the covenant that God made with the entire Jewish people at the plains of Moab, as they prepared to enter the Land of Israel, the Torah uses the word nitzav to indicate their acceptance of this brit for all generations:

"Today you are all standing ('nitzavim') before God.. to bring you into God's covenant... In order to establish you on this day as His nation, and He will be your God..." [Deut. 29:9-12]


[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. I, pp. 22-23]

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