There are two words in Hebrew that can mean community: Tzibor and Kahal. The first, Tzibor, is generally utilized in the phrase Shaliach Tzibor, a representative of the community, and generally refers to the Hazzan, the one appointed to lead them in prayers. The second, Kahal, or the related form Kehillah, is generally utilized in the phrase Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community, and is the Hebrew phrase used when one refers to a synagogue.
What makes a community automatically a holy one? Is it the presence of the Torah scrolls in the ark? The mezuzot on the doors? The people? While the phrase is regularly used, I submit that a community must earn the phrase by the mitzvot it performs, the study that takes place, and the striving to be the best community possible. The word “synagogue” will immediately bring to mind a building with certain characteristics; the same can be said for a “community”. To earn the right to be called a Kehillah Kedoshah is not like passing an examination and receiving a diploma or license to practice your profession. It is a daily challenge that all of the members must ascribe to and aim for in all that they do, for the approach and deeds of the members creates the public impression of the degree of holiness of the congregation. By achieving a certain standard, one might even be so bold as to suggest that the Divine Presence dwells in that building, much akin to the Divine Presence dwelling in the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary borne by the Israelites during their forty years.
What might the standards be for recognizing a community as a Kehillah Kedoshah, especially since so much of what we do is self-defined? Are there a minimum number of mitzvot to perform, or a certain number of hours of study, or deeds of lovingkindness? Each human being is by design imperfect, and faces the daily challenge of becoming the best possible self. Might we be able to apply that same concept to a community? That is to say, can a group of people, by definition each member imperfect, be an imperfect group that must strive to be the best possible group?
The residents of Babel tried to create a massive tower to reach the heavens in order to make a name for themselves, and we know how badly that ended. The challenge of becoming, and maintaining the label of a sacred community, is a constant. Just as we are all expected to do our best individually, so too must we lend our voices to do our best communally, so that all who enter will want to do so because they know that here resides a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community. May we merit the title and wear it gracefully.