In this week’s Perasha, God tells Moshe to “make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8). Note that God plans to dwell among the Jewish people and not in the sanctuary. The Ohr HaHaim (17th Century Moroccan Rabbi) explains that this refers not only to the mishkan – Tabernacle and Batei Mikdash – Temples but also to our synagogues when we are in exile. This means that when we show our devotion to God by praying to Him in kal, he will rest his divine presence upon us. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th Century German Rabbi) explains the true meaning of the verse “is the proximity of God in our midst”.
The Ohr HaHaim bases his explanation on a verse from Yechezkel (11:16) “Thus said the Lord God, ‘Although I have removed them far away among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the lands, yet I have remained for them a small sanctuary in the lands where they arrived.’” Rashi explains that the small sanctuary, the mikdash me’at is the synagogue.
The Gemara in Masekhet Megillah (29a) explains that the mikdash me’at can also refer to Batei Midrash – study houses. Indeed, when the Mashiach comes, these mini sanctuaries will be uprooted and transported to the land of Israel. In Masekhet Berakhot (6a) the Gemara tells us that prayer is only truly heard in synagogue as that is where God is found. The Gemara (Berakhot 8a) also tells us that one who spends long hours in the synagogue and study houses will have length of days – a blessing reserved for one who lives in Israel as the verse states “that your days mays may be multiplied and the days of your children, upon the land”. The Gemara explains that the synagogue is an extension of the Land of Israel.
The Ramban in a long passage to Shemot 13:16 explains “the purpose of synagogues and the merit of praying with a congregation is this: that people should have a place they can gather and acknowledge to God that He create them and caused them to be, and where they can publicize this and declare before Him “we are Your creations” This the intent of Chazal in what they said “and they shall call out mightily to God”. From here you learn that prayer requires a voice, for boldness can overcome evil.” From the Ramban we see the significance of synagogue as actualizing our ability to pray to God.
However, if we aren’t truly calling out to God in prayer, does God really rest his divine presence in our synagogues? Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo argues that God is preparing to leave our synagogues as we aren’t fulfilling their purpose. It is only when we use the synagogues as they are intended that we can hope to have Hashem’s divine presence upon us. It is a call to challenge us to not only build the synagogue, not only visit the synagogue, but to call out fervently in prayer to our Father in heaven.