Parashat R’eh 5777

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 18 August 2017

Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha – Serve the Eternal One with gladness
Bo-u l’fanav birnana – Come before God with joyous songs

It was in the week and Friday afternoon preceding Tisha B’Av that my family and I were experiencing aspects of Jewish Portugal.

First, a visit to the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, the largest Shul in Sepharad that boasts 200 members from 21 countries. From a regular minyan to mikveh and kosher store to kids Cheder, this is a thriving community. The proud history of the Jews of Portugal and specifically Oporto are displayed in a fascinating museum. We learnt so much in this space and conversations with our Ashko-normative children opened their eyes to the beauty of Sepharad.

Further south on Friday afternoon, we found ourselves in the restored sanctuary of the small Synagogue of Tomar, the oldest preserved Shul in Portugal. Built in the mid-15th century, The Inquisition led to the demise of the Jewish Community and the building be used variously as a prison, Christian Chapel, a barn, a common cellar and a grocery warehouse. In the 1920’s the process to restore the building as a Synagogue and museum began.

Today there is a pulpit, an Ark with a Sefer Torah and the potential to be a regular House of Worship – if there were more than the 2 Jewish families living in Tomar. Feeling a surge of history and emotion well inside, after fellow tourists had left us alone I invited my girls to sing Lcha Dodi with me to welcome the Sabbath in to this Sanctuary an outpost of the God of Israel. Being early teenagers they ran out knowing what it is to be embarrassed by their Dad as I let rip with a Sephardi melody.

With my eyes closed I then recited Kaddish for the Jews of Portugal and Spain who had been murdered, forced to convert and flee to leave an empty Sanctuary. Yet the echo of my voice remained as did theirs, serving God in joy.

In sidrah Re’eh we have the Deuteronomic injunctions to destroy all sites of worship both Israelite and pagan to centralize worship. The emergence of pagan practices in a town would incur all its inhabitants being killed, the town and its spoil to be consumed by fire – that JPS translates as a ‘holocaust’ – to the Eternal your God.

As a Liberal Jew, I understand these passages in their historic context, mourn the tragedies of our people that led to our dispersion and yet celebrate the rich diversity it produced. Subsequent disasters in too many generations necessitate rebuilding and renewal that we do best when move beyond a need for retaliatory destruction or a mythical return to a centralized cult.

May the Eternal One be served with gladness and may joyous songs soar from all God’s sanctuaries on earth wherever we find them.
This Thought for the Week first featured on The Jewish Views podcast from The Jewish News

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