Sunday, November 10, 2013


Va-yetzei begins by quickly letting us know from where Yaacov has departed—Beer-sheba—and where he’s going—Haran.  This single sentence proves to provide the framework for the much lengthier description of the place that comes in between.

What is that in-between place?  At first, we don’t know.  It’s just “a certain place,” and “this place.”  A seemingly any-place where Yaacov happens to stop for the night and use a stone for a pillow.  But it becomes so much more.  It transforms from a wayside camp to the setting of a holy vision.  Yaacov wakes from his extraordinary dream of an encounter with God and calls the place “awesome,” “the house of God” and “the gateway to heaven.”  Yet still, it seems to have no name.  Not until after Yaacov has transformed his pillow stone into an anointed pillar, until after he as renamed the site Bethel (house of God), do we finally learn that it had formerly been the city of Luz.

Did the spiritual experience itself turn the forgotten place into sacred space?  Not entirely.  It was with the aesthetic transition of a randomly chosen stone pillow to a thoughtfully fixed commemorative monument that Yaacov declared the name and made the transformation complete.

In the current Temple Beth Israel newsletter, you’ll read about a new initiative for this sacred space.  We hope to gather momentum and commitment to attend to the aesthetic stewardship of our sanctuary, building and grounds.  Some may wonder whether investing ourselves in the beauty of our space diminishes us; are we frivolous to worry about how the sanctuary looks, or whether the front hall conveys both an inviting and an inspiring welcome, rather than how the liturgy and d’var Torah move us? 

In Philadelphia, I grew up in the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed synagogue.  Brad and I raised our children there.  Between the two of us over the years, we became involved at many levels—in the school leadership, in the Rabbi search committee, in the house committee, in strategic planning, in religious and social programming, in social action, in the religious committee, and I could go on.  The physical facility also grabbed us.  Brad transformed the grounds, both to align the landscape with the
unique beauty of the building and to develop the first of his gardens—ultimately acres in the community—to help supply the synagogue’s food pantry.  I chaired an event, the Landmark Ball, to mark the designation of the building as a national historic landmark.  We became founding supporters of the Beth Sholom Synagogue Preservation Foundation, a 501(c)3 established to help support the facility needs, complete with an interactive visitor center and Frank Lloyd Wright design store.

Some perceived any emphasis on the architectural significance of the building as discordant with the synagogue’s religious mission. Stealing volunteer and donor resources from what’s really important in the life of a congregation.  Conflating the space and the spirituality of the activities that happen within it.

But perhaps Va-yetzei teaches us that this very conflation yields just what we require.  Yaacov models to us that the spiritual and the visual intertwine in the establishment of sacred space. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel said : The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”  I believe that beauty contributes to our sense of wonder.  We accept and even expect to bring this wonderful beauty into our sacred liturgy through music.  Why not into our sacred space as well?

In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives us another take on the intersection between aesthetic beauty and spiritual elevation.  He relates this Sukkot story from Israeli Nobel Prize laureate S. Y. Agnon:

[S]hortly before Sukkot in his Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, [Agnon] ran into one of his neighbors, an elderly rabbi from Russia, at a store selling etrogim. The rabbi told Agnon that he regarded it as particularly important to acquire a very beautiful, aesthetically perfect etrog. Although he had limited means, he was willing to spend a large sum to acquire this ritual object.

How surprised Agnon was a day or two later, when the holiday began and the rabbi did not take out his etrog during the synagogue service. Perplexed, he asked the man where the etrog was. The rabbi told him…:

“I awoke early, as is my habit, and prepared to recite the blessing over the etrog in my Sukkah on my balcony.  As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family, and our balconies adjoin. As you also know, our neighbor, the father of all these children next door, is a man of short temper. Many times he shouts at them or even hits them for violating his rules and wishes.  I have spoken to him many times about his harshness but to little avail.

“As I stood in the Sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the etrog, I heard a child’s weeping coming from the next balcony. It was a little girl crying, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she, too, had awakened early and had gone out on her balcony to examine her father’s etrog, whose delightful appearance and fragrance fascinated her. Against her father’s instructions, she removed the etrog from its protective box to look at it. She unfortunately dropped the etrog on the stone floor, irreparably damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use.  She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely, perhaps even violently. Hence the frightened tears and wails of apprehension. I comforted her, and then I took my etrog and placed it in her father’s box, taking the damaged etrog to my premises. I told her to tell her father that his neighbor insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful etrog, and that he would be honoring me and the holiday by so doing.”

Agnon concludes:  “My rabbinic neighbor’s damaged, bruised, ritually unusable etrog was the most beautiful etrog I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

In this story, an act of spiritual beauty emerged from the tradition of bringing aesthetic beauty into our ritual.


As a newcomer to Temple Beth Israel, I’ve found spiritual beauty in abundance.  In the genuine kindness and community. In the lovely chanting and the inspiring d’vrei Torah from our clergy and fellow congregants.

When I was checking out the options in my new community, I first went to the TBI website.  Here I got the impression of a ritually rich traditional congregation with progressive values and forward thinkers.  But, to be honest, when I first walked in…I wondered.   It wasn’t that I was looking for another architectural masterpiece. I saw a place whose building was fine but whose level of aesthetic stewardship might suggest disconnection and stagnation rather than spiritual engagement and progression.  And if I hadn’t persisted past that first impression, I may never have discovered that we have the transformative community that moves us beyond simply a place…to a sacred space. 

As a marketer, I knew we had to better manage that first impression, aligning our aesthetic appeal to our heart and soul, to help our congregation compete for growth.  Fortunately, when I raised my concerns they were heard as opportunity rather than complaint.  With Rabbi Nathan’s support and involvement, a number of us are exploring ways to move forward; and as many of you have noticed Brad already has begun to make his mark outside.

As I read Va-yetzei, I see what we are doing not only through my marketing lens but, in some small measure, through Yaakov’s eyes.  I realize that we need to solidify our identity by placing our stone—anointing our place with the attention to beauty that helps us to experience it as sanctified space.

I delivered this d'var Torah at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on November 9, 2013.