The city of Cordoba in the South of Spain is famous for having been one of the key sites of the Golden Age of Judaism in the Middle Ages. After centuries of persecution leading to Judaism becoming a forgotten memory a new sun is shining on Sepharad. I dream that what once was green will be green again. The city where Maimonides was born is now preparing for the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the foundation of the Synagogue of Cordoba. There will be many activities taking place in order to highlight the importance of this monument in history. One of them will be a Progressive Kabbalat Shabbat that the Town Hall has asked me to organise.
The building of the Synagogue of Cordoba was ordered by Isaac Moheb and was inaugurated on 5075 (1315 of the Common Era). It was a family synagogue built when times were hard and when there were many restrictions for any religious building under Christian rule over the city. A synagogue could not be bigger than the smallest chapel in the city. Yet despite its small size it is one of the most beautiful examples of medieval Jewish art. Muslim artists from Granada were responsible for the internal decorations. These were the same artists who were also working on the decoration of the Alhambra Palace. After the expulsion of 1492 the synagogue was subsequently first used as hospital, it then became the chapel of the shoemakers and finally an elementary school.
The Moorish-Hebrew decoration was covered with reeds and plaster which ensured that it was safe from the destructive hands of the Inquisition. The original use of the building was eventually forgotten until 1885 when part of the plaster fell down. At this point the original decoration was rediscovered. What people thought was just another school for young children was discovered to be a beautiful Synagogue from the 14th Century. During the passage of 400 years the original Synagogue was hidden.
In Parasha Ki Tissa we arrive at the end of the narrative about how the Tabernacle and other holy utensils related to it must be made. Finally God commands Bezalel to make the Ark of the Covenant. The Tabernacle in the desert and then the Temple in Jerusalem will become the centre of Jewish religious life.
Right after instructing the Israelites to build the Tabernacle, God reminds us again of the commandment of keeping Shabbat. Why immediately after describing how the Temple must be built, does God again make the point about the importance of Shabbat?:
“Six days may work be done but the seventh day is the Shabbat of rest”. (Ex 31:15)
Just before in Exodus 20:7 God has already commanded: “Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy”.
The reality is that the Hebrew term for the sacrificial rituals in the Temple and for work is the same: Avodah. During 6 days we work and on the 7th day we stop from any labour, we rest… We make time holy. This is something which Judaism does constantly, make time and space holy. This is what the Tabernacle and Shabbat are about: Time and space in which we can elevate ourselves. If work and the offering of sacrifice in the Tabernacle are called the same in Hebrew (avodah), we could conclude that work can be also an offering. If the Israelites created a holy space in making an altar where they offered the avodah, (the sacrifice) maybe we can also create a holy space in our life by making our daily work an offering?
Work has been regarded too often as a punishment we all inherited after Adam. “ For your transgression, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” Gen 3:17. The word ‘Itzavon‘ found in this verse is commonly translated as toil, but it also means pain. Since work has been portrayed in such a manner, I can totally understand how difficult it is to have to wake up every day and feel motivated to work. But perhaps work dignifies us and makes us God’s partners in improving and preserving His creation. Working with honesty and generosity, taking care of small details and being conscious of how much we can transform our lives and the lives of all those around us; it is a way of making our daily issues a place where we encounter God. Maybe work is not a punishment but rather a way we can change the world? It is a gate into prayer… Taking this further, I would say that an hour of work done with love in your hospital, workshop, kitchen or one hour studying that hard subject you still do not understand, is also an hour of prayer.
It is not just the Temple or Shabbat that can make time and space holy: I believe that we carry within us both the Temple and the Priest and that when we work we are able to offer of ourselves, to serve those around us and to make our time with them holy. Like that hidden Synagogue in the South of Spain, occluded for 400 years behind the appearance of a hospital, a church, and a school…We all have a hidden sanctuary in us. We all are able to make time and space holy with the avodah of the small things of our every day life. We read in Kings:
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before God, but GOD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it,
he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Kings 19: 11-13
Not in the powerful wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire… rather in a gentle whisper God talked to Elijah. It is through small things that we can make something great. It is in our hidden and quasi anonymous labour of every day that our tabernacle, our sanctuary lies.
Student rabbi Haim Casas
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.