How the shule closed and I ‘discovered’ Shabbat

Some three months ago, the board of our shule decided to close the shule due to the onset of the coronavirus. It felt like a body-blow. I was shattered; not only were the minyanim, the daily tefillot and especially the Shabbat services part of the very fabric of my being, but the services were what knitted us together as a community. How would the community survive? How would people cope?

I argued against the early closing (we were the first in Melbourne to close), but accepted the advice of our medicoes, the concern of the Board and the necessity of caution and Pikuach Nefesh (Life comes first).

The first weeks without the regularity of communal prayer were especially difficult. I missed the rhythm of the daily services, the way they punctuated my day, the first capital letter, the full-stop of my diurnal cycle. I felt the gap of the minyan cameraderie, the sound of the Torah being read out aloud. Mostly, I longed for the spirited Shabbat services, the connectedness, the touching-base with the range of our community, the kiddush banter…

Recognizing that resentment at the little virus wouldn’t make any difference, (just as anger at the unfairness and cruel indifference of the pandemic wouldn’t change it), was the first step of my ‘enlightenment’. The insight of the Baal Shem Tov was particularly helpful. He suggested there are three ways we cope with crises. The first is hachna’ah or yielding; it’s about accepting realities, letting go of hopes, expectations and dreams we had.

The second is havdalah, discernment, grasping the complexity of our new situation and looking for the sparks of light in the darkness. The third is hamtakah, sweetening or finding the opportunities for growth.

And so I decided to go with the flow, to surrender to the new-normal, to discover what it had to offer, to uncover any secrets and strengths it had to proffer. Like so many others across the world, I began to savour the solitude; relish the slower pace; cherish the opportunity to be with family; notice the subtle changes of the natural world outside my window.

It was, however, the slow, but definite changes in my tefillah and Shabbat that caught me by surprise and at times just took my breath away. The pace of daily tefillah in many shules is fast and furious; some of the leaders in our service are known as the Hungarian or Odessa Express. Shabbat prayers are also ‘under the pump’.

At home, I could set the pace and the unhurried speed begin to produce unexpected results. The nuance of particular words and phrases caught my heart; the beautiful symmetry of the prayers, the overall framework, the very super-structure of the siddur captured my imagination. I have a new-found respect for the psalmist and his well-earned name as sweet-singer of Israel. I appreciate the incisive insight of Leonard Cohen that so many of David’s Hallelujah’s are broken, filled with the pain and rapture of living in difficult times. In his desolation, his lines are like W.B. Yeat’s young men ‘tossing on their beds, rhymed out in love’s despair’. So I followed, all the more intensely, David’s struggle with exile and pretending to be mad. Here in Psalm 34 are some of his finest lines. “I looked for God and He answered me… Taste and see, that Hashem is good…This poor man called, and the Lord heard. Come, my children, listen to me… Who wants life, loves each day to see good”

Here is a psalm that reflects on the purpose of a world turned upside-down the meaning of life in a time of turmoil. Here is a poem that recallibrates your thoughts and emotions; that reminds that words are often all we have, and that the right words at the right time can be source of healing for our hurting planet. “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking deceit, Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” What better message for a pandemic – this is a time when you can discover that the power of love is stronger than the love of power, that the pursuit of peace is more potent than the ‘consolations’ of conflicts.

My most surprising discovery, however, was not in prayer, but in time. I have spent almost my entire life in shule on a Shabbat and the bulk of that as a Rabbi. One of the ironies of a communal Rabbi’s life is that on Shabbat you’re hard at work. If not leading the service, you’re watching it carefully; vigilant that things run smoothly, that people are happy and content; that your sermon is short enough to keep people awake and long enough to get them to think.

Shabbat is a busy time; walking to Shule several times, participating in smachot, comforting the anguished, challenging the comfortable, kiddushing with the kvetchers, and being attuned to the needs of different people.

Well, Covid 19 brought Shule Shabbat to a screeching halt. It replaced it with a quiet and yet sonorous beauty. I could get up whenever I wanted, daven for as long as I liked, the kids could come for an early dinner or lunch or simply visit and I would be home and relaxed enough to enjoy just being with them. And then there was still time to do my Daf learning, to read an article, dip into Dante or a new novel…

What a deep and unremitting pleasure pulsed through my Shabbat. “The Sabbath” penned Dylan Thomas “rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy stream”. It indeed rang slowly and sweetly in my soul. Now I really understood why Jews love the Shabbat! This is some enchanted day which opens up simple pleasures and deep meditative moments! No wonder the great theologian Abraham Heschel described the Sabbath as a ‘Palace in Time’ and an ‘intuition into eternity.’

I’m going to try and hold onto my new found respect for this incredible gift called Shabbat and speak with even more conviction to my congregants about its benefits, just as I hope to retain the rich insights of tefillah…

A Shule is about a lot more than tefillah – critical as prayer is to our lives. It’s about connecting and growing hearts and souls. It’s about learning and communication. It’s about the myriad spiritual, cultural and pastoral needs of a diverse group of people. And during this lock-down this has been most evident in our shule community.

There’s a worrying surge in new Corona cases in Victoria which may yet dash our plans, but we’re planning to resume our Shabbat services next week.

I’m busting to get back into a shule service, to jump onto the Shabbat Express, to see you, my friends and congregants face-to-face once again, to hear of your experiences during this trying time.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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