"Zeh Ha-sha-ar L'Adonay" – "This is the Gateway to God"
The Sanctuary of Temple Beth-El
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
June 30th, 2012
The Main Sanctuary Building of Temple Beth-El is a most extraordinary religious edifice. It was built in three significant phases, the initial construction of 1939, the revision dedicated in 1949, and the stained glass windows depicting the prophets completed in the mid-1960's. Additionally, there is the art and architecture of the bemah, the main dais, the stained glass windows facing Grove Avenue, the stained glass windows in the doors on the main and upper levels, and the two murals on either side of the entrance doors into the Sanctuary room. An untold number of hands labored with love, skill, craftsmanship and vision to assemble a religious structure that is wondrous to behold. Further research will reveal the names and details of how all this came to pass. For the worshiper who ascends its main portico, the collective construction and illumination creates an awesome, glorious and inspiring religious experience.
This year of 2011-2012, 5772, has been dedicated to the explication of the individual pieces that collectively construct the religious ambiance that embraces those who enter this building. In all probability the individual artists and architects labored separately and never knew nor conversed with each other. They could not tell the following artisan why and what their art was intended to convey. That being the case, my mind perceives a miraculous unity in the presentation and augmentation of this religious home. Each piece intertwines perfectly with the other, creating a religious broadcloth that surrounds the assemblage. Because the other papers detail the individual parts, the purpose of this composition is to delineate the unified vision that emerges.
The Psalmist urges us "to lift our eyes to the mountains (Psalm 121:1)." As one approaches the synagogue, the elevation of the building compels one to do precisely that. More than 'climbing steps,' one who enters is an "oleh," "one who ascends." This word resonates in the synagogue ritual, but is rooted in the history of the faith. It is a religious ascent, far beyond the physical. The central sacrifice was the "olah" that was entirely burnt on the altar of the Tabernacle and Temple. Its smoke rose to God, for the purpose of unifying the person who brought the offering with God. Later the term would be used to describe the pilgrims on their journey to the Temple in Jerusalem, commanded in the Torah to come at the holy days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Lastly, the term is used for one who comes to the Torah during its reading.
The very edifice wants all who enter Temple Beth-El to feel that they are on this journey to fulfill all these meanings: ascending to a relationship with God, coming to the Temple to worship, and entering into the dialogue with God through the central document of the covenant with God, the Torah.
The synagogue is the third official place of Jewish worship, following the First and Second Temples on the mount in the city of Jerusalem. They in turn replaced the Tabernacle, the portable shrine built by Moses. Yet that, too, was a substitute for the core location in Judaism, the place to which we never returned, where God revealed Himself to Israel, Mt. Sinai. It is the place where the children of Israel heard God's voice, where the irrevocable covenant that made Israel a nation was declared. Instead of staying at Mt. Sinai or making it a place of pilgrimage, Israel took Sinai with them, forever. The Jewish religious experience is the unique symbiosis of all of these places, Mt. Sinai, Tabernacle, and the Temples with the synagogue. From the outside of the building into it innermost core, this place takes each person on a religious journey through space, time and history to meet God.
The journey begins on the outside façade of the building. It is emblazoned with four manifestations of the Ten Commandments surrounding the name of the synagogue. The name itself proclaims this place to be Bet –El, God's House. The Ten Commandments lead us to Mt. Sinai. The Torah Scrolls represent Matan Torah – Kabbalat Torah, the Giving and Receiving of the Torah at Sinai. The menorot on the façade were first constructed for use in the Tabernacle becoming the paradigm for the Menorah of the Temples. They are replicated on either side of the bemah. The covenant of the faith of the Jewish people and God begins at Sinai.
Yet the ultimate destination is the Land of Israel, promised to Abraham and his descendants and reaffirmed at Sinai. When one enters the Main Lobby ones eyes immediately rise to the newest piece of art, the mural presentation of pastoral ancient city of Jerusalem. The Tabernacle of Moses, built at Sinai, is permanently when Solomon builds the First Temple on the mount in Jerusalem. It is the focus for Jews forever and throughout the world. Our orientation is to the Land of Israel and within the land, to Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem, to the Temple. This mural locates us geographically and spiritually.
Upon entering the Main Sanctuary one must look to the bemah with its two sets of tall columns, embracing the Holy Ark. It is surrounded with grapes, the main ornamentation representing the Land of Israel. The rear wall of the bemah is curved, precisely replicating the original synagogues in the 1st century C.E. in the Land of Israel. The Ark with the Torah was brought in to the room and placed in the apse. This architecture brings us back to 2nd Temple times, when Temple and synagogue co-existed.. The main liturgy of the Temples was the Psalms, chanted by the Levitical choir. Located at the very pinnacle of the bemah is the inscription in Hebrew: "I place the Lord before me always (16:8)." This same inscription in inscribed in English in the mural at the rear of the Sanctuary, so that the worshipper is directed towards it upon entry, focuses on it during the entirety of ones presence, and reminded that God's presence continues with us even as we leave the Sanctuary and reenter the world outside. The Holy Ark and the two lecterns are also decorated so as to capture one's eyes with the continuing symbol of the Land of Israel, David's harp – author of Psalms for the Cantor, Torah – core of Judaism, for the Rabbi.
The aura of the Main Sanctuary is created the infusion of the deep resonant colors of the windows that depict the essential message from each of the three Major Prophets, all of the twelve Minor Prophets, the Burning Bush – also Sinai, and Elijah, forerunner of the Messiah. Individually and collectively, their magnificent, breathtaking appearance presents the certitude of God and His message. The worshipper is to be infused with God, the certainty of God's existence, His choice of Abraham's descendants to be His chosen people forever, the eternality of the covenant made at Sinai, enshrined in the Temples in Jerusalem, and taken by the Jewish people to the ends of the earth, protected and projected by the synagogue. The awe inspiring physical surroundings place the worshipper on this unbroken journey to God and Torah that traverses Jewish history. The relationship of God and Israel bound together through the covenant of Torah is to last forever.
The strength and size of the internal and external architecture is to impress all who sit it and all who enter with the truth of Judaism and certainty of the faith. The vibrancy of the colors, the magnificence of execution, the repetition in the smaller pieces of glass in the doors, and in the windows that project forward in the upper lobby infuse the worshipper to be resolute in their conviction of Judaism, unshakeable in their identity as a Jew, proud to be the descendant of such a glorious history, confident to transmit it to their children and thus be the antecedents of generations of the Jewish people yet to come. All this is contained in this brilliant religious home, formed with grace, shaped in splendor, resplendent in beauty and filled with holiness.
Temple Beth-El has long held its rightful place in the never ending journey of the Jewish people. Its physical manifestation is a beacon on the hill for the Jewish people, illuminating them the meaning of the faith, belief in God, and loyalty to Torah and the Jewish people. Entering this building one travels metaphysically from Richmond to Sinai and to Jerusalem. Spiritually we stand before Sinai and God.
May the light of its truth burn brightly for ever.
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
3330 Grove Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221