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The Very First Synagogue in the World

Terrace of the Lions, Delos, Greece

Sermon Parshat Matot-Masei 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

The monsoons finally arrived this week, late but much needed; or at least one monsoon arrived, anyway. Monsoon season means that soon we will begin to see rainbows. That is not an unusual thing here in a Tucson summer, typically filled with monsoons, lightning and storms.

You know how it usually works: there is a huge storm, thunder and lightning and rain. Great drama, power and pyrotechnics. And then, at the end, as the rain is clearing or still coming down somewhere in the sky, a beautiful rainbow emerges, a kind of promise in the air. It is a lovely thing, isn’t it? A reminder of that first rainbow in the story of Noah, an artistry of hope wrought by God out of water vapor and light, a covenant of color.

That reminds us of that story of Elijah in the Haftarah from last week’s Shabbat service, a dramatic tale of loneliness and purpose. The prophet Elijah asks God for some sign that he is not alone in his belief, and in that Haftarah, God shows Elijah a huge storm, and next a powerful earthquake, and then a great fire, but God isn’t really in those. God is in the small voice afterwards. To me the rainbow represents that and reminds us of that covenantal promise made so long ago to Noah, and so to us. Beautiful, and in a way that touches our hearts and makes us young again, so hopeful and filled with promise.

Well, let’s also go a little less far back than Noah, tonight.

As Jews we are always interested in the sources of our people’s vitality over the 3800 years of our existence. And for the past 2000 years the principal source of life, learning, and community has been the synagogue. Whether it is called a temple, congregation, shul, or kehillah, the synagogue is the place that has guaranteed that Judaism will survive and thrive from one generation to the next.

We have a great deal of literary information about the central shrines of our people, the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and their predecessor, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. The Torah gives elaborate instruction on how the great Tent of Worship and Meeting was made and used, and even how it was carried from place to place. And the Book of Kings and the writings of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible tell us much about the functioning of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple, and its magnificence and holiness. The 2nd Temple is well documented in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Bible, while the structure and rituals of this magnificent edifice are elaborately and lovingly described in the Mishnah and Gemarah, the Talmud, and in many stories and legends.

But long before the destruction of the last great Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE we Jews had begun meeting and praying, studying and arguing together in a new institution, the synagogue, a place for less elaborate ritual but greater intimacy, a place of intellectual stimulation, of and personal expression, a place of true community.

Just what was the first synagogue? There is some clue in the name itself, which is Greek and means “house of assembly”, the same meaning as the Hebrew phrase for synagogue, beit Knesset. Most people believe that the oldest surviving synagogue site discovered so far is on a Greek island.

One of the most interesting places I have ever visited is Delos, the island near Mykonos in the Cyclades Islands of the Aegean Sea, about 100 nautical miles from Athens, a day’s journey by sea today but probably two or three days in ancient times. Delos has several distinctions. First, it was one of the most important pagan shrines in antiquity, a center for the worship of the multiple gods of that day for a thousand years. Eventually, the ancient Greeks decided that it was the true birthplace of the major gods Apollo, the sun god, and his twin sister Artemis, the moon goddess.

Delos became the center of the Delian League, an important alliance led by Athens that included a huge treasury and a big merchant presence, a major port city and island and the banking and commercial center of the Mediterranean world for about a century. And Delos is also a beautiful little island with extraordinary ruins today, still being excavated, with many fascinating mansions, temples, sacred places and statues, and large commercial areas, agoras.

But finally, and most importantly for us, Delos is likely the location of the oldest synagogue we have ever found.

What makes this exceptionally interesting is that in its heyday the island of Delos was one of the two or three most important pagan worship centers in the world. And yet on the same island that worshipers of Apollo and Dionysus took as the centers of their cults, the same island that received thousands of offerings of statues and temples dedicated to pagan gods, the very first synagogue was built. It is a bit like finding the first shul ever inside the Vatican, or the oldest temple located next to the Kaaba in Mecca.

The Delos synagogue is located in a residential area of the island, a good walk from the big public central avenue of temples and sacred lakes and sacred harbors. Still, it is a unique reminder that Jewish practice and study as we know them began in a setting that was dominated by another culture and religion, and that we have always flourished in juxtaposition to other beliefs and practices. On this beautiful little Greek island, overlooking the deep blue waters of the Aegean, 200 years before the last Temple was destroyed and the long Exile from Israel began, Jewish worship and study started on the path that is remains on today. An extraordinary place for a remarkable beginning.

I suppose it is a bit too obvious to note that the magnificent pagan temples and the gorgeous shrines to Apollo and Artemis and Dionysus lie in ruins now, and that no one has worshipped these gods for perhaps 1500 years. The huge port and the most important banking center in the world, too, are a distant memory. The vibrant international marketplaces filled with the latest products from everywhere in the known world are now represented by broken vessels and shattered pots. And while the biggest slave market in the Mediterranean was located on Delos, not only is it long gone, but the evil institution it represented has been eliminated from all the civilized places on the globe.

All of the great, powerful, dynamic, rich institutions that existed on Delos are gone. All the fabulous innovations, all the noise and color and drama of life that nearly everyone thought were what mattered are gone. All but one.

It is the small synagogue that has endured, and the values and traditions and meaning it has represented that continue to make it the most important institution in Jewish life, and perhaps anywhere in this complicated world. For what synagogues provide—prayer, youth education, counseling, rituals that celebrate our life changes in meaningful ways, adult growth and spirituality and inspiration, comfort, community, financial and moral support, and a modeling of the kind of values we need to live in other areas of our lives—these are not easily found in our world. In fact, they are not found in one place anywhere else.

It again reminds us of that Haftarah from last week’s Shabbat, in which Elijah is led by God on a journey to distant cave in the desert wilderness. There God brings him forth to witness drama and power: a great, tearing windstorm; a huge earthquake; a traumatic fire. But God is not in any of that noise and destruction. And then a kol d’mamah dakah emerges, a still small voice. It is the voice of conscience and purpose. It is, Elijah knows, the true voice of God. That’s where God is.

Maybe it’s not a rainbow that we need to see. Maybe it’s actually that voice we hear that reminds us of God in our lives. That still, small voice of the synagogue.

So may it be for us, this Shabbat, and always.

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