Warm Or Cold Synagogue?

I recently had an interesting discussion with someone about different types of synagogues.  I’m not referring to the different denominations, but rather, to different synagogues, regardless of denomination.

I stated that if I entered a synagogue and was not approached with a Shalom Aleichem, then I would consider this house of worship to be cold and unwelcoming.  The person inquired of me if I ever said Shalom Aleichem to others, and if so, how was the response.

When I said that the response was usually friendly, he countered that perhaps a shortage of Shalom Aleichems does not necessarily indicate coldness on behalf of the congregants; perhaps it is just a cultural or social way.  After all, if when I actually get to know this presumably cold people, they turn out to be friendly, then perhaps indeed they are warm – but for cultural or social reasons they are not always quick to say Shalom Aleichem.

One could debate both sides of the issue for a while.  How does one define “cold” and “warm” with regards to people?  What makes someone friendly?

I know a pulpit rabbi who once remonstrated his congregation for not being welcoming enough to guests and new members.  The first time I ever attended his synagogue, I was approached with a welcoming greeting by a long-time member.  Sadly, after having been there countless times, he was the only member to ever do so.

Whether such a congregation is “warm” or “cold”, I will leave to the reader to decide.  As with all issues, I believe we can gain some insight by examining the Torah portion, specifically the one we read in synagogue this week, Yitro.

In parshat Yitro, we read of the watershed event of Jewish history: the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  There is so much to analyze and discuss in the Ten Commandments, and all the surrounding events; literally thousands of pages of commentary have been written about this occurrence.

In the description of the situation leading up to the Ten Commandments, the Torah writes: “And G-d descended upon Mt. Sinai” (Exodus 19:20).

One of the foundations of Jewish monotheism is that the Creator of the universe is omnipotent.  In plain English, G-d can do whatever he wants and is not limited to the rules of nature.  Thus, one can ask, why did G-d descend upon the mountain?  Couldn’t he have elevated the Jewish people to the heavens?  In fact, there was precedence for such an act, as it says in Exodus 24:1, “And He said to Moses: Ascend to G-d”!

The answer is very simple, and quite telling.

G-d preferred to descend to us, rather than elevate us upwards, to teach us a very straightforward and simple lesson:  Don’t wait for someone to approach you, but make sure to approach them first.  Whether you want to learn from the person and hope that they will approach you first with an offer to teach you; or whether you feel that it is appropriate that they should greet you first; or whether someone is in need of help, be it financial or otherwise.

G-d descended upon the mountain to teach us that one must depart from one’s place of comfort and travel to any place in order to help another.  We must emulate the teachings of the sage Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh, who said, “Be first to greet another person” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:15), be it in the synagogue or elsewhere.