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Why Bother Coming to Synagogue?

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

Your feeling tired, it’s been a long week and Shabbat arrives.

After a delicious meal you set your sights on bed and fall into a deep slumber.

Shabbat morning you awake grudgingly early in the morning to head out to the synagogue.

As you awake your conscious gets the better of you. There is an internal fight. One of the questions is, why do I need to go to synagogue to pray; surely G-d is everywhere and will hear my prayers even here at home. Let’s stay home this week.

Good point!? So what is the purpose of gathering in synagogue and does it really matter?

Part of the answer lies in this week’s Parasha.

Ki Tavo is commonly referred to as the Parasha of Tochacha – “rebuke.” It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah’s laws (28:15). It is interesting to note that this is not the first Parasha which contains a lengthy rebuke. Earlier in the Torah (Bechukotai) we find a similar terrifying list of punishments which will befall those who fail to observe the Mitzvot (Vayikra 26:44-45).

This raises two questions. Why was there was a need to repeat the threats after they were already described in gruesome detail in Bechukotai? Furthermore, at the end of the rebuke in our Parasha there seems to be no mention of consolation. The Torah seems to leave us with the ramifications of the curses, moving swiftly on to the next subject. In Bechukotai however, the Torah ends the curses with words of consolation. Why the difference?

A fascinating answer is offered by the Ohr HaChaim who notes that the curses detailed in Bechukotai are written in the plural, while those in our Parasha are expressed in the singular.

The Ohr Hachaim suggests that the punishments mentioned previously are national in nature and will only transpire if the entire nation engages in inappropriate activities. For this reason, they are written in the plural. Our Parasha, on the other hand, is expressed in the singular, as it addresses individuals who sin even at a time when the nation as a whole is behaving properly.

With this distinction, we now understand that the rebuke in Bechukotai ends with words of encouragement because it pertains to the entire nation. No matter how far they may stray, the Jewish nation is guaranteed a continued existence in the merit of G-d’s covenant with our forefathers. Each individual within the community, however, isn’t as fortunate. Since our Parasha discusses the case of the individual who sins, it doesn’t conclude with words of consolation, as they have no such assurance.

The Alter of Kelm uses this concept to resolve an apparent contradiction regarding the nature of Rosh Hashanah. On one hand, it is considered a festive day, on which we dress in our finest clothes and eat enjoyable meals.

On the other hand, the tone of the day is solemn.

Hallel isn’t recited due to the fear and trembling which accompany the knowledge that the books of life and death are open on this day. The Alter explains that as a nation, we are confident in G-d’s mercy and conduct ourselves with joy and optimism. At the same time, each individual is filled with dread and terror at the recognition that he has no such guarantee.

There is a wonderful idea brought down in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. The Torah states:  Yaakov Chevel Nachalato – Yaakov is the measure of His [Hashem’s] inheritance. (Devarim 32:9)

Chevel also means a rope. The students of the Baal Shem Tov draw an analogy from this verse.

A long rope descends from under the Throne of Glory of Hashem. Every member of Israel holds on to the rope according to their spiritual level. The higher one’s level, the higher up the rope they are. But the rope is not attached to the throne in a physical way. The Throne of Hashem sits where it sits. But as the actions of the leaders bring merit to Israel, they don’t move up the rope but rather raise the rope and everyone holding on to it. Thus, all the lowest members of Israel, holding on to the bottom of the rope, receive a spiritual boost due to their leaders. The opposite is also true. If the actions of lowest members bring disgrace to Israel, they drag the rope down and everyone with it, including their leaders at the upper end of the rope.

We are one nation intertwined together.

When an individual stands alone they are susceptible to being judged alone, yet when they are attached there is safety in numbers.

It’s for this reason that we call a congregation a Tsibur. The words Tsibur can be split up to stand for Tsadikim Benonim and Reshaim. When we all come to the synagogue to pray to Hashem, we are joined by many different people. Each one brings a special touch to the Minyan and each individual will help the community rise.

Praying alone we miss out on attaching ourselves to the greater nation. When we join together we are much more powerful and grant real honour to the Almighty.

As the Day of Judgment approaches, we may find comfort in this message. If we live in our own vacuums, we will be judged on our own merits on Rosh Hashanah, a scary thought. However, our Sages teach that if we affiliate ourselves with a community, becoming part of our synagogues and volunteering to help with communal projects and organizations, we will share in their collective merits. As a result, we will enjoy an inscription for a year of health, happiness, and blessing.

Join in and reap the benefits!

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