THE PLACE OF THE SYNAGOGUE IN MODERN LIFE
Israel Mattuck, 26 January 1912
"In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee".
We may well apply this verse, and the promise it holds forth, to the Synagogue, not that it is the only place where God causes his name to be remembered, but perhaps the chief of them. Yet, I fear that a great need has arisen to answer the question, What is the place of the Synagogue in modern life; what is its worth for that life?
This question is forced upon us for our own satisfaction. We are constrained to answer it for the satisfaction of that uncounted number of men who feel that the house of worship has not any worth for them. In our answer, therefore, we shall seek to express those thoughts and feelings which inspire those who are interested in the Synagogue. This expression may serve as an argument for those who are not so interested.
The verse that I have chosen as my text promises a blessing coming to us by means of any place where God's name is remembered. The blessing to be derived from the Synagogue is twofold. It is a blessing to the individual; it is a blessing for society.
The spiritual forces which constitute the atmosphere in the house of worship are an effective help in the formation and in the development of the individual soul life; they confront the personal consciousness, limited and finite as it is, with the presence of the great infinite unlimited universal power. Man comes into the Synagogue as he is; he receives a vision of what he should be. He comes in his imperfections to behold perfection. He comes in reality to catch a glimpse of the ideal.
This is a significance of worship. Worship is the effort of man so to approach his God that he may be ennobled and inspired by a clear vision of Him. Small, insignificant, humble as he is, he is yet granted this grand power of divine vision. This alone will raise him out of his smallness into greatness.
The essential element in worship is prayer. Prayer is the soul's expression of its longing for the divine; it is the means by which man can inhale a breath of the divine attributes. The great men in history when facing some weighty moment in their careers approached it with prayer. Pericles prayed before he entered state councils that looked to him for advice. Wellington prayed before he entered a battle. Demosthenes prayed before he made a speech, and to these men, and to those like them, the prayer, because it expressed the best that was in them, because it expressed their highest hopes, was a means of self encouragement, giving them to a degree that for which they prayed. He who sincerely prays for greater strength will receive it. He who prays for nobler purity, will find it. He who prays for divine excellence, will attain it. For man is so constituted in his spiritual nature that the source of development is within him; he needs but to address himself to God to have that source opened with endless currents, for perennial springs well up to overwhelm him with their gigantic powers.
Man is constantly assailed by difficulties and doubts that require great strength to meet them, and noble guidance to solve them. Out of the sorrows, for example, to which man is heir, prayer offers the surest escape. When the dead and cheerless earth has covered for all time the mortal frame of one dear and beloved, and it seems to have extinguished the light of the firmament, cheer has gone, strength ebbs away, but if the heart utters forth its supplication, if the soul opens the chambers where its secret hopes are treasured, and the spirit wings itself aloft on the pinions of faith to the Divine Father, man's worst afflictions lose their sting. Unto Death he may say 'where is thy sting, and unto the grave, where is thy darkness'. In the very thick of the night, light appears, and out of the silence of the grave, angels chant their sweet harmonies.
Prayer is the expression of faith; it vitalises and strengthens faith. There is not only a prayer of words, but there is prayer in deeds. He who works at his daily task in the hope and with the desire that by means of it he may be improved and that through it he may come nearer to God, that man is praying, but the prayer which is work is made possible and easy by the prayer which is thought and word. He who calls up the divine strength that is in him before beginning a task, will find in that task a divine service, and who would not so hallow and so sanctify the daily task?
Out of prayer comes guidance; by means of it we can solve the intellectual and moral doubts that often beset us. According to our definition of prayer, it is calling forth the best that is in us, and the best that is in us will guide us aright to the best that is in life. Here is a man who is puzzled by a question of right and wrong; it may be a big question in the life of the state, or it may be a question in his own private life. Infinite considerations force themselves upon him; some of them are dictated by his baser nature; how can he silence them but by calling forth his higher nature.
Again, the man who is daily busied with the winning of bread, whose task keeps his mind and his eyes riveted to some small spot, who lives in his office, or his shop, or on his farm, and by this very concentration, by this very narrowness, his soul is threatened with stifling, and if now and then he turns away from the grindstone to pray or to meditate, there comes to him again the feeling of life's greatness. As he who is in a room weighted with a heavy atmosphere is [refreshed] when the window is thrown open, so he who is weighted by the narrowness of his own work becomes refreshed when a breath of the divine enters his soul through the window of prayer.
Is there any man who can say, I am so good that I can be no better? Is there any who can say I am so strong I can be no stronger; who can say I am so holy, I can be no holier? If such a one there is, he has no use for prayer, but so long as we who are mortals fall short of our ideals, just so long shall we need the aid that comes to us through praying.
It is true that the Synagogue, or the house of worship, is not the only place for prayer. We hope that God causes His name to be remembered in all places, and at all times of life. I trust that all of you so sanctify your homes that they are temples wherein God resides, and that out of them the blessings of God come to you. But the social spirit of worship is possible only in the house of worship. You may pray alone; it is well, but the prayers uttered here are not only for yourselves, but for the community as well. By the very fellowship in prayer, the individual is helped. Two children are lost in a thick and dense wood. As they wander about seeking an escape, the sun sets and darkness is upon them. They are terrified and dismayed. One takes hold of the other's hand, and though neither knows the way out, yet each feels consoled and strengthened by the consciousness of the other's presence.
There is a story told by the American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, a story of a Rabbi who felt himself sinful. He therefore decided on a visit to another rabbi who stood in high repute for saintliness. In his search for his saintly colleague he passed a shrine where he saw the object of his search kneeling. He came to him and told him of his predicament. The saintly rabbi confessed to a similar feeling of sinfulness. "Let us then" he said "both pray together"; and both side by side with bowed heads and humbled frames prayed for forgiveness. Out of their prayer they emerged with faces and figures and souls strengthened, for each beheld in the other the message of God's pardon.
There is source of strength and source of inspiration in communal worship, for it brings to the one the realisation that he is not alone, but that his fellow man shares the consciousness of the divine presence, and the fellowship of the many will increase divine strength in the one.
This is of no mean significance for society. The social conscience is here portrayed and emphasised. Furthermore, the improvement of the individual in his spiritual nature means the improvement of society. We may, we should, devolve schemes whereby we may remedy social ills and eliminate social wrongs, but a perfect society will come only when we have perfect men and women constituting it. Therefore, by message of faith and righteousness, the Synagogue seeks to make better men and a better humanity.
The Synagogue, or the religious fellowship, should play no small part in the attempt to improve social conditions. We are not content with prayer and preachment, we would also serve. While seeking to improve the spiritual and moral nature of the individual, we must at the same time address ourselves to the amelioration of the evils in society. Much that we see as sins in the individual is really caused by the faulty organisation of society. The greed and the rapacity of one individual, or of a number, may drive others to sin. A thief may be produced by degeneracy in the one, but he may also be produced by the fact that he has no means of honestly earning an adequate livelihood. Yes, and there are other forms of sin which are brought about by economic or social wrongs. It were manifestly irony for religion to plead purity when the need of bread is driving to impurity. It were farcical for religion to plead for honesty, when the bare needs of existence are driving to dishonesty, ridiculous for religion to plead for truth when physical wants necessitate ignorance, therefore, the Synagogue which stands for religious fellowship must help to eliminate those vile conditions in society which make religiosity impossible. You may do that as individuals in a measure, but you can do it infinitely better as a fellowship. I do sincerely hope that when this congregation shall attain a sufficient degree of strength, it will undertake as a unit, something in this direction.
Do you not therefore see why individual and social needs demand from all this interest in the Synagogue and this moral support to its efforts? That it may help you, that it may help others, for the very force and the very power will depend upon that interest which you evidence. Your presence here is indeed a manifestation of that interest, but by a continuation and the increase of it you will make of this fellowship a magnet that shall attract those who are not so interested. Though perhaps they know it not, they who need the consolation and strength which the house of worship can give them, they who need the guidance and the light that we hope may come to you in this place to be taken hence into your daily life; they who need the consciousness and the realisation of God's eternal presence.
When Jacob fled from his father's home, going to a country he knew not of, he did indeed feel that God's presence had perhaps left him, but that presence was only in the hope that he had left, and that he should no longer hope for it, no longer feel, but when he was asleep one night on his journey he dreamed of the angels that were in that very place ascending to heaven and descending from it, and behold God was there. The Angels. They are our hopes and our aspirations for a nobler and a better life, wherever they evidence themselves, wherever man seeks the ideal life, wherever man will approach his God, behold, God is there. Jacob awoke and said "indeed God is in this place", and he went hence with a renewed consciousness of God's presence, with an invigorated strength that comes from that consciousness.
"In every place where I shall cause my name to be remembered, I will come and bless you".
May then the blessing of God ever go with you from this place to make your lives true testimonies to His greatness, His Majesty, and His holiness.