Hasidism’s mystical founder the Baal Shem Tov (BeShT) and his students were on an overland journey. One evening, as the sun dipped low in the western sky, the group saw a rainbow of light illuminating the otherwise dark horizon. Soon the light gave way to a building clad in stained glass. It was a synagogue.
As the Hasidim drew near, the BeShT recalled to his students Parshat Terumah, in which God tells us: “Build me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among [you].” And further, the BeShT cited the Talmud’s teaching that we “should only pray in a house with windows.”
Hearing their teacher’s words, the young pilgrims were eager to daven in such a well-planned house of prayer, for they imagined, from such an estimable place all prayers must ascend directly to heaven. The rebbe, however, was hesitant, not yet convinced.
Thus, just as the traveling classroom approached the sanctuary’s threshold, the BeShT stopped suddenly. “We cannot go in. There is no room. It is too crowded.”
The rebbe’s students were surprised, perplexed. The colorful windows had bade them approach, and the sanctuary’s seats sat unoccupied. How could the rebbe suggest a fully illuminated, all but empty worship space was too crowded?
“A prayer, when uttered with a pure heart, sprouts wings and soars to the highest realm,” the BeShT explained, “but when a worshipper’s true intent is less than pure, heaven considers their words to be insincere and such prayers collapse and fall upon one another.
Why? When one’s words in service of heaven are not aligned with one’s actions here on earth, such prayers sprout no wings. So it is this empty sanctuary is filled with flightless prayers. And now, as a result, there is no space for new prayers to enter.”
This synagogue’s design honors Parshat Terumah and its colored windows honor the Talmud’s teaching — that’s true. But both “what we say and do” is our prayer; and where we pray matters far less than what we pray and with whom.
To wit, we build beautiful sanctuaries to honor God and our highest ideals; but a holy sanctuary must never be in service of human ego — and we must never secret ourselves away within sanctuary walls. And those windows? Sanctuaries require windows, not for their color or beauty, but precisely because they are windows — for windows invite us to see without our walls and beyond ourselves; they allow us to survey the world outside our doors, and to recognize our likeness in those we have ignored, and to imagine our own lives in the lived experience of those we have wronged. And, of course, windows allow others to see us and to assess if our own deeds are aligned with our words.
However, when we, mistaking the material for the spiritual, prioritize translucent glass over crystal character, we
risk privileging our ideas over God’s and, therein, turning our worship spaces into echo chambers … overcrowded with our own, fallen prayers.
Do not misunderstand. Beautiful spaces are a blessing; but God needs neither windows nor walls — it is we who desire them. Yet clearly, these same artful elements can frustrate pious words leading to proper actions (cf. “bricks more important than people” in a midrash on Tower of Babel). So, Jewish tradition teaches, ultimately it matters not where we pray, only that a Jew’s prayerful intentions and personal actions align. For only when “the words of [our] mouth and the meditations of [our] heart” are in synch with our deeds will our prayers rise to heaven. PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin Rabbinic Scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.