The synagogue was huge, beyond anything I would expect in this seemingly off-the-map city of Yangon, Myanmar. I was surprised to learn that three thousand Jews lived here before immigrating to the newly-established State of Israel. Their home used to be Iraq; today, the only indication of their lives in Myanmar is this old synagogue (1854, rebuilt in 1893) and one Jewish family. Moses Samuel, the caretaker of the synagogue, motioned to me that during the high-holidays the synagogue was packed with people and in fact it couldn’t contain everyone in its stone walls.
Now there was complete silence and I could feel the walls begging for a presence. It looked like a home whose family quickly departed, leaving behind their favorite books, clothes and pictures. Two Torah scrolls still stand in the heichal, waiting…
I saw a shofar* resting by the menorah and I didn’t hesitate. I squeezed and squeezed past the point of feeling faint and past the point of surrender. I felt my blood rushing and temple throbbing as my breath slowly filled the temple with life. It did not matter that there were only two men here, for in my mind I could see a thousand Jews listening to the sound of the great shofar. Moses’ eyes were wide and his smile wider – I think he felt the same.
In the Shmoneh Esrei prayer – the most personal one between the prayer and God – I read and meditated on these words (translated as I understood the Hebrew text, which varies slightly from the common translation):
Sound a great Shofar for our freedom, and deliver a miracle to unite the dispersed; gather us as one from the four corners of the earth to our land. Blessed are you, G-d, who unites the dispersed of His nation Israel.
Am I not one of “the dispersed” of Israel? What am I doing here, so far from “our land,” Israel? If we all lived in Israel, would there no longer be “the dispersed”? I don’t think so, for unity cannot be about a physical place, could it?
The Shofar in my hands was a miracle: it connected me to the thousands of Jews that lived here in exile, and it turned this sleepy synagogue into my home. Though still empty, there was a presence about it – sustained throughout my repeated visits – that made it feel like the synagogue I grew up attending. Maybe it’s as simple as that! A symbol of unity, though easy to conceive of (as easy as a long breath, right?), is much more difficult to realize. The miracle is to find that symbol, hold it in your hands, and make it shake the walls which confine you.
*Shofar: a ram’s horn traditionally sounded on the Day of Atonement, symbolizing the closeness between self and God.