The Buildings of Civilizations
At Touro Synagogue
Rosh Hashanah Second Day, Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur
Rosh Hashanah Second Day, Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur
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On Yom Kippur, I sat in my chair at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, anticipating a beautiful and fulfilling evening. Next to me sat Larrie D. Ferreiro of Washington, DC, who was attending a conference at Salve. He teaches history and engineering at George Mason and several other schools in Washington DC.
I asked him to explain the combination of these disciplines. He said,
“Humans have been engineering large, complex structures as long as we have had civilizations. Everywhere around the world, every time humans have created complex social systems, they have also created large complex structures.”
His examples include many of the structures in history such as the Pyramids, Angor Watt, and even a ship of the line which, with more than 10,000 parts, he calls one of the “most complex machines built before the industrial revolution.”
In a recent book, "Brothers at Arms,” he treats the American Revolution in a similar way. Although Americans see the revolution as a local event, it was much more. France and Spain were seething in anger at the results of the previous war, and the American Revolution became part of a much larger war that involved many of the major players in Europe in an 18th century world war.
The American thinkers who ran things from Philadelphia realized that America could not succeed without (French) help…and the help in arms, men and money was very generous. Although America liked to credit Benjamin Franklin for his diplomatic success, in fact the French were very eager to assist.
Newport had a role in the victory at Yorktown, Dr. Ferreiro points out. “American independence was saved by France and Spain — and the Rochambeau expedition at Newport was a major part of that.” The victory at Yorktown began with the march of the French Army from Newport southwards.
The French always deferred to Washington, who in turn consulted his advisors, including the French. The French suggested that with the help of the French Fleet, it would be easier to win a victory at Yorktown than to retake New York City, which was Washington’s preference. With some well placed leaks, Washington fooled the English into believing New York was the target, and moved much of the French and American forces to Virginia. Many of the soldiers at Yorktown, in each of the three armies, were Germans, either soldiers for hire, volunteers or immigrants to America.
As I contemplated our candle-lit shul, I thought how the building was a cooperative effort that involved a lot of moving parts, something like a ship. Some of the push to hire a rabbi, Isaac Touro, and build the synagogue might have been from Aaron Lopez, a recent arrival from Lisbon. The architect, Peter Harrison, used English architectural books for the outline, and information about a synagogue from the Jews of Newport for the details. The bricks were imported from England.
Our current congregation reflects its diverse origin. In Rabbi Marc Mandel’s various holiday sermons, he addressed us as individuals and as a congregation. He challenged us to build ourselves into better human beings, on both an individual and community level.
On the second day of of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Mandel spoke about וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה “repentance prayer and charity will lead us to a better year.”
“The High Holiday prayer book, the מחזור,” he said, “doesn’t give us a tool kit for how to achieve these three goals. How should we do it and how should we not do it?”
Rabbi Mandel cautioned us against multi-tasking. “One of the most important words in our tradition is שְׁמַע- to listen. If we are multitasking, how can we listen?
"Therefore this year–when we focus on תְשׁוּבָה תְפִלָּה צְדָקָה when we focus on repentance prayer and charity–let’s focus on each one separately–so that we can concentrate on each goal as we pray for a year of spiritual growth and success.”
“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” is from Unetanneh Tokef. Although the machzor attributes it to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 1100s, his existence is doubtful, and it was probably composed in Palestine between 500 and 600. The phrase is based on the Yerushalmi Talmud, which says that the decree will be annulled.
As Rabbi David Golinkin explained in his paraphrase of Rabbi Marc Saperstein, “In other words, the Yerushalmi (and the Bavli too) had a very simple yet problematic theology: if you do X, Y, and Z you will annul the severe decree. The author of Unetaneh Tokef, who lived in the Land of Israel at the time of the Yerushalmi , did not agree with that theology. In his opinion, repentance, prayer and tzedakah cannot annul or eliminate evil, but by searching our souls through teshuvah, praying to God through tefillah and helping other people through tzedakah we help ourselves and others cope with evil and ‘make the evil of the decree pass.’ This is the peshat (simple meaning) of Unetane Tokef which, I believe, most modern Jews can relate to.”
At Kol Nidre, Rabbi Mandel said that perhaps the trap door on Touro’s Bimah was a message from the builders of Touro to future congregants,“Perhaps the people who built the synagogue were doing it for teaching, but for future generations.
“They were telling future members of Touro Synagogue, ‘Don’t become trapped by your own mistakes and misjudgments. Think courageously and boldly like we did.’”
Before Yizkor on Wednesday, Rabbi Mandel pointed to Jonah, who did what we all would like to do in the face of something unpleasant, run away. “God tells him to go to Nineveh and tell the people everything you’re doing is wrong. And Jonah says, ‘Not me. I’m not doing that.’ So he hops on a cruise ship, the best place in the world to run away from your problems and forget about everything.”
In the face of a hurricane, Jonah and we are snapped back into reality. There are forces in the world bigger that us that we can’t hide from.
Death is one of those forces.
As we think of our loved ones who are gone, Rabbi Mandel said, “It’s not too late for us to learn from them. Their souls will be alive if we take their sparks and live as if they are very much a part of us.
“We can inject anything they stood for into our lives and by doing so will unite with them once again, and they are still our mentors and our partners as we continue on our own journeys and once again learn all about what is right and wrong. Gamar Chatima Tova!”
Now it is time to build our sukkahs, ourselves, and our society.