Remarks delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks at the dedication of Congregation Beth Shalom’s new synagogue space in Palm Desert

What Today’s Dedication Means

(Remarks delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks at the dedication of Congregation Beth Shalom’s new synagogue space in Palm Desert on September 11, 2022)[1]

Good afternoon! What a wonderful occasion for us to gather, the dedication of a new home for Congregation Beth Shalom, a new home for Conservative Judaism not only in Palm Desert, but in the Coachella Valley. I have three points I’d like to share this afternoon to help us think about this moment.

First, the Jewish people have known, since time immemorial, the power of sanctuary to anchor community. When the Jews went down to Egypt, they asked for the land of Goshen, a place where they could live separately. Geographic proximity, though, was not enough for spiritual centering or moral uplift. So, after we left Egypt, G!d instructed us, v’asu li mikdash, “build Me a mishkan, a portable sanctuary.”This simple command transformed the Israelites. During the whole construction of the Tabernacle there were no complaints at all. That was perhaps the only time we Jews refrained from kvetching!

Yet, let’s also consider that that portable sanctuary, that mishkan, was a carrying case for the Ark of the Covenant. It was the first thing we created together that was not about who we were in Egypt, but was about who we are at the moment and might want to become. So my first point is that today’s dedication of our new home represents not only a celebration of the hard work of so many in so many different ways. This new sanctuary and synagogue will also help us to re-vision whom we might become, and then work to become that, so that we can dream further.

Second, the mishkan was a conduit for our connection with G!d during our 40-year journey in the Sinai desert. When G!d tells us the desired result of building the mishkan G!d doesn’t say, “If you build it, v’shachanti  b’tocho, I will dwell within it.” Rather, G!d states that if you work together, v’shachanti  b’tocham,“I will dwell with you and among you.”

I know, many of you are thinking, “But, Rabbi, doesn’t G!d dwell everywhere?” And, of course, you are right. But we need a place, we need this place, in part so that we can better think about how to forward and actualize G!d’s work in the world, because G!d dwelling within us means that G!d works through us. G!d works this way, because G!d cannot do it alone.

G!d cannot make a peaceful world unless we, G!d’s children, help G!d by rooting out the hatred from our hearts, the prejudice from our minds, and the injustices that lie within our society.

G!d cannot give us a good night’s sleep unless we cooperate with G!d by living honestly and honorably.

G!d cannot forgive us our sins these upcoming High Holy Days unless we help G!d through genuine contrition for what has been, and firm resolve for the kind of persons, and the kind of synagogue community, we hope to be.

G!d helps the needy with the tz’dakah, the righteous acts we do and the kind resources we share.

So my second point is that today’s dedication is celebratory in part because this sanctuary will be the launching pad for our own betterment and the springboard for our becoming a haven of love and decency in Palm Desert and the Coachella Valley

Finally, after giving the initial instructions to build the mishkan, G!d tells us to build the the Ark that would sit at its center, which would house the covenant given to us on Mount Sinai. We were to make a cover for this ark of pure gold. And then we were to make two k’ruvim, a type of angel–at the two ends of the cover. These k’ruvim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover. Yet, in protecting the Ark, these k’ruvim don’t look outward for danger. Rather, uf’-neihem ish el achiv, “the faces of the k’ruvim shall be facing each other,” the way two human beings optimally look at one another, face to face. And then G!d tells them, “THAT is where I will meet with you. Between the two faces.”

Divine energy vibrates most fully and effectively between two faces, in the gaze between two people who see each other ish el achiv, as sisters, as brothers, as people, as someone who matters to them, someone who then has a claim on them. It happens when we look another person in the eyes and really see them. And care about them.

My third point for today, then, is, that as we formally dedicate this synagogue, we commit  to re-dedicating ourselves to noticing one another, seeing one another, sharing with one another. This will help us to actualize the caring within us, and that is where holiness resides.

Finally, the book of Exodus records that when the building of the Mishkan was completed, Moses blessed the people. What dedicatory prayers were offered? The midrash suggests the following: “May the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) rest upon all of us,” and “May noam HaShem, the pleasantness of G!d, be upon us and on the work of our hands.” So as we celebrate, let us all affirm these same prayers and hopes:

May the work of our hands be stable and strong

May we continue to re-vision our synagogue’s possibilities.

May this synagogue help us to actualize our own potential,

and live up to our cherished values.

May we feel energized to do G!d’s work in the world.

May we find that we are a flexible web of interconnectivity

that continues to build not only with our hands, but with our hearts.

May we find that we can look at each other and support one another.

And may we sense that G!d is present in the spaces between each of us,

and that G!d’s pleasantness resides upon us.

Amen v’Amen!

Mazel tov!

[1] Congregation Am HaYam and Congregation Beth Shalom forged a relationship at the beginning of the pandemic which continues to this day. We have attended each other’s services, classes and special events.