03 November 2009

Say Yes

You know how sometimes when someone pronounces your name wrong and you're fine with it, but other times when someone pronounces your name wrong, over and over again, you're annoyed, even angry, at the insensitivity? This applies to the spelling of names as well. In a certain fundamental way, there's really no excuse. A name, in its power to well, name, gains force over a moment in life that draws attention to the essence and character of the person or object designated, or, named. To get it wrong is to invalidate the person or the object. And let's face it: that's just never good.

No one wants to be invalidated.

I think of this every day when I walk to work and see God's name misspelled over the doors of Beth Elohim's Main Sanctuary. For one hundred years now God's name has been misspelled. We've yet to figure out why. We even have an archivist on the case, trying to uncover some documents from the early years of the synagogue's move to Park Slope from Southern Brooklyn that might indicate an exchange or two about a mason's linguistic indiscretion. God's name, as it should appear above the door, is ELOHIM, or in Hebrew, אלוהים. But in fact, God's name is spelled אלוחים, with a ח in place of the ה which is doubly insulting since the letter ה is already a deep signifier for God's name. The ה repeats itself in the Tetragrammaton, which may explain one aspect of its depth; in addition, the ה means השם, Hashem, or, "the Name," so sacred an expression of God's essence that one doesn't actually pronounce it but merely refers to it, as, well, "the Name."

But one hundred years ago we got it wrong, which isn't good. One hopeful theory is that the founders got it wrong on purpose. Their piety dictated that God's name should be misspelled in case, God forbid, future generations would have to remove the lintel in order to repair the building. (This reason based on the classic Jewish interpretation that one is not allowed to "erase" or "destroy" God's name.)

I don't buy it. I think, rather, it was a mason hired who got it wrong. And the exigencies of the day demanded not a do-over but an approximate victory. And so for the better part of the last hundred years, assuming no one would notice, it would be "fine."

In late August a few of us were sitting around the Shul when we realized that on September 9, 2009, the Shul's Main Sanctuary would be 100 years old in a rather special way. 9-9-09. The symmetry was good and so we started talking about a party in the Main Sanctuary--a band, some drinks, a generally good time--with the theme, "Reverse the Curse" whose stated goal would be to raise the money to fix the lintel, to restore God's name to its proper spelling, and to propitiate this said God, in order to bring about good fortune for our holy community and those who share our fate an destiny as a synagogue center.

It was a good idea.

But Holy Days preparation overcame us, and then the word of the Westboro Baptists, and then a ceiling collapse.

Here's a picture of the section that collapsed:

There are likely two or three other sections of the ceiling where that could happen again, mainly because the roof of the Main Sanctuary is very, very leaky. And just so you understand, here's what it looked like, that day of said collapse, in the pews below:

Those hunks of plaster weighed about 15-20 pounds and if they'd have hit you on the head, you, like Jonah, would not have been able to discern the difference between your left, your right, or much cattle.

So we have closed the Sanctuary for the better part of two years and thank God for the friendship of Rev Daniel Meeter and the folks at Old First Reformed Church, who opened up their Church to us for worship on Yom Kippur this year and will likely host us again for the next two years as we set about with the daunting but necessary and inspiring task of raising the money necessary to repair, renovate, restore and yes, re-imagine our central worship space for the next 150 years.

Reverse the Curse indeed! I have come to believe, despite several hefty doses of skepticism that I have been served since my youth in Wisconsin, where daylight savings' arrival is darker and harsher, that this challenge is the single greatest challenge that has confronted our community since its founding in 1861 and that the very hand of God is visible in this challenge. Like Abraham our Father, who the Rabbis teach us is tested over and over and over again, we as a community are being tested about our ability to rise to the occasion, to humble ourselves before God's glory, and breathe new life into a dedicated community space in pursuit of the One Who Is Sovereign Over All, the Holy One Blessed Be God.

I know, I know. This is Park Slope. The child is God. The Co-Op is God. Prospect Park is God. I know, I know. But stand in my shoes, just for a moment. The God you believe in has suffered the indignity of a misspelled name for one hundred years. For a century the rains fall, steadily wearing away at the illusion of protection. A pattern emerges in the one hundred years' time--decay and repair, decay and repair. And then, one day, when enough people dare to say aloud, "Reverse the Curse," to admit the flaw, to give voice to the breach, the ceiling falls in. And within days, Kansas produces a hateful few that stand in the shadow of our destruction and mock us with their twisted venom. But our Torah speaks louder. Our community--open to all--stands in the open air, in the place where Jacob first dreamed a dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven, and re-fashioned (that is to say 'reversed the curse') the very definition of holy space, of the House of God, of בית אלוהים.

The work before us, to raise millions to repair, renovate, restore and re-imagine, will comprise the greatest challenge our community has ever faced. It is without a doubt the most terrifying and the most thrilling challenge of our Jewish lives. And our God, who is very much present at this time, waits to meet us on this journey.

I remember when I was ordained Rabbi, in 1996, at a large service at Temple Emanuel in Manhattan, our College president, before two thousand people, privately and quietly said to me, "At every link in our chain of tradition, God waits to meet you. Are you ready to meet God?" And I remember saying to myself, "This isn't a rhetorical question! This isn't a rhetorical question!" So I looked my ordainer in the eyes and said, "Yes. Yes."

Say Yes.

Say Yes.

Meet the test.


Jonathan said...

Fired up, ready to go.

Old First said...

I loved this, bro.