I recently traveled to Poland with a group of students from our Yeshiva. Our main goals were to help members of the Polish Jewish community prepare for Passover and to provide assistance to Ukrainian refugees, Jewish and non Jewish, as they crossed the border, fleeing the Russian invasion of their country. During the forty eight hours or so that we were in Poland, we found ourselves davening in numerous places, including four different synagogues. All of those shuls had been defiled but were kept standing during World War Two by the Nazis. They used those shuls for ammunition storage, as stables, or for other unholy purposes. One, in Medyka, just a few blocks from the Ukrainian border where we spent our time volunteering, remains a shell of its former self, having never been rebuilt after its destruction some eighty years ago.
Why did the Nazis keep these synagogues standing? I suggest that perhaps beyond the practical purpose that they needed buildings to use for various functions, that there is a deeper, more symbolic reason as well. These buildings represented such an important aspect of Jewish life, the conversation between us and our Creator.
Synagogues and yeshivot, shuls and schools, are places where humans speak to God through the vehicle of prayer and where God speaks to us through the vehicle of our study of Torah. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik so beautifully describes this. He says that ”learning Torah is a total, all encompassing and all embracing involvement… ecstatic experience in which one meets God.”
Let us turn to our parsha and appreciate Bilam’s berakha, his blessing of praise for the Jewish people, that was, of course, not his original intention. “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel ”(Num. 24:5). Rav Ovadia Seforno, an Italian commentator who lived during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, suggests that the terms used here “ohalecha” and “mishkenotecha” – “your tents” and “your dwelling places,” refer to houses of study and houses of prayer respectively. He explains that “Ma tovu – how goodly” means that these institutions do not merely benefit those who attend them, but all of the members of the Jewish people as well (Seforno Num. 24:5:1).
The very fact that we as a community build, maintain, and value these sacred spaces speaks to what lies at the core of who we are as Jews: our covenantal connection, our ongoing connection and conversation with God.
To return to our original question, perhaps the Nazis chose to defile rather than destroy so many of our holy buildings because of the symbolism of showing that they were no longer used for their original holy purposes. It is therefore even more meaningful to daven and to learn in those spaces today. Their structures may be damaged. Their decorations, their furniture, their Sifrei Torah and their holy books have been removed. But their sanctity remains in their connection to God and to the generations of Jewish people who prayed and studied within them. All of these cannot be destroyed.
Let us be inspired by the knowledge that even though there are those who will try to curse us and try to destroy us and our way of life, that every time we daven and every time we learn, whether at shul, at home or anywhere else we may find ourselves, that we are continuing to connect to an unbroken chain in our relationship with our Creator. This connection unites all of us with God and with each other across the bounds of time and space.