Inspiration from praying in isolation

Our pandemic induced isolation seems to be nearing its end.  Many are anxiously preparing to return to some semblance of a normal life.  Many yearn to once again daven with a minyan.  Some have already begun davening with socially distanced minyanim.  Others are waiting a bit longer until certain specific measures will be reached.  But almost all of us are excited about the possibility of returning to communal prayer.

It therefore seems that now is an opportune time to reflect on what we missed while davening without a minyan.  Hopefully through this reflection we can attain a greater appreciation for what tefilla and tefilla betzibur is and we will thereby enrich our minyan experience moving forward.

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I am not addressing what we missed out on halachicly while in our cocoons.  We all acutely felt our inability to sanctify Hashem’s name with Kaddish, Kedusha and Baruchu. We genuinely missed our second chance to daven through the Chazan’s repetition of shemone esreh.  We  actually missed the Torah reading (even when there was a double parsha).  On Yom Tov we longed to receive the brachot the kohanim bestow.  These lacuna in our tefilla were widely felt. However they are also easily repaired.  These missing pieces will return  once minyan resumes.

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I am referring to what we missed in the emotional, and social realm.  For those mourning a loved one, the absence of a minyan with whom to recite kaddish was particularly painful.  Halachic limitations took a heavy emotional toll.  The deep-seated feeling experienced by many that they were unable to fulfill their most basic responsibility to honor their parent after death will not easily dissipate.   Returning to minyan will not bring back all the missed kaddishes.

There were many things done to commemorate our loved ones in the absence of kaddish.  Limud HaTorah, performing acts of chesed, and doing mitzvot were utilized for this purpose.  Obviously for many, these actions, as important as they were, did not suffice emotionally. Nonetheless perhaps this time when we were forced to substitute other mitzvot to replace kaddish will force us to recalibrate our priorities in aveilut.

It is entirely possible that we overemphasize the importance of reciting kaddish.  Kaddish is of relatively late origin.  It is not found in the Mishna, gemara or Midreshei halacha.  Although the core of kaddish, yehei shemei rabba mevorach does have provenance in Berachot 3a and earlier sources in pesukim (see Tehillim 113:2 and Daniel 2:20) the recitation of kaddish by mourners finds its earliest source in the widely cited midrash quoted in Or Zarua (Volume 2 #50) and other sources.

One who looks carefully at that source however will notice that Torah study is emphasized nearly as much as kaddish recitation.  Kaddish certainly has a powerful emotional pull.  But , we see from the earliest sources that Torah study and performance of mitzvot similarly accomplish a great deal for the neshama of the deceased. Perhaps as we return to minyan and once again can recite kaddish, we should not lose track of the importance of Torah study.  The experience of our isolation can lead us to recognize the importance of the mourner himself or herself engaging in Torah study; it does not suffice to delegate to others and ensure that a siyum of mishnayot is made.  The midrash cited in Or Zarua indicates that when the son of the deceased studies Torah that like kaddish has a profound effect on the niftar.

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Experientially, without minyan so many of us missed our social circle.  We missed the joking friends and listening ears that are such an important part of our lives. We missed the social aspects of the kiddush even more than we missed the cholent, kugel (and schnapps).  Until this imposed isolation many did not realize just how important the social dynamic of Shul was.  Before social isolation many spoke disparagingly of social Orthodoxy and derided those who only came for kiddush.   Now we all recognize just how important the social Orthodox (for lack of a better term) are to the fabric of our community.  Hopefully we will no longer speak negatively of these Jews.  We should now recognize their value in weaving an even more beautiful communal tapestry.

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Most importantly there were real benefits that accrued from davening alone at home.  This time of forced tefilla beyechidus hopefully made our davening better.   While at home, we could set our own pace.  We were not constricted by the Chazan or the rabbi.  The externals of synagogue life as meaningful as they are to some, were all stripped away.  We were left with only the words of tefilla to focus on.  We are left only with ourselves.  We could turn our attention towards our personal limitations and frailties as well as our talents and capabilities.  We could approach God as we really are and focus on what we want to become.

Our tefilla in isolation brought with it a more narrow focus.  Our thoughts were mostly on  ourselves, our families and our most dear relationships.  Additionally, when davening at home we had an opportunity to transform our homes into a makom tefilla.  Hopefully we will no longer think of Shul as the only makom tefilla and kedusha that we have. Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov has a dual meaning.  It refers to both our batei knesiot and our individual homes.  Ordinarily these two meanings are separated.  Now we recognize how they are intricately conjoined.

Davening at home allowed for the outpouring of our individual souls.  Too often when we daven with a minyan we do what everyone else does, say what everyone else says and do not even touch upon what we ourselves need.  In public we are unable to express our personal pleadings as we would like (even were we to be cognizant of them). When we are with others we are forced to conform with synagogue norms.  We cannot scream, sing or meditate.  We are unable to be moved by the urges of the present moment and allow our souls the abandon and the freedom to show their splendor.

Tefilla is intended to bring forth my personality and spiritual yearnings.  For this reason Dovid Hamlech spoke of V’ani tefilla, the personal and intimate dimension of prayer.  Paradoxically, it is in moments of prayer, when we are ostensibly communicating with God that we actually discover ourselves.  Hopefully this self discovery will continue to inform our tefilla when we return to minyan.

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Davening alone at home allowed us the liberty to think.  Shalom Carmy once appropriated Yogi Berra’s famous quip that “you can’t think and hit at the same time” to tefilla.  Effectively learning about tefilla and actually davening are not the same thing.  We learn prayer before we pray not during davening.  The words that appear on top of many an aron kodesh דע לפני מי אתה עומד may highlight this point.  Lifnei has a temporal connotation.  Knowledge and study of prayer must precede actual prayer.

In part the reason we must think before we pray as there is simply not enough time to think and pray at the same time.  Our harried daily lives barely allow time for prayer at all.  We catch the minyan that best fits into our schedule, that will allow us to make the morning train and arrive at work on time.  Our choice of minyan is very often not based on how to best incorporate Godliness in our lives and how satisfy our spiritual urges. However, while confined to praying at home, we could pray as we should.  We had the rare chance to really think, to ponder and investigate what prayer is all about and how it can be meaningful to us in our lives.

For so many of us davening is something that we do because we have always done it. We learned to read by davening and unfortunately we still use tefilla as an exercise in reading without giving it much (if any) thought.  However, now with the changed circumstances, and having experienced prayer in isolation we can rethink how we daven.  We now know that we can think and pray, learn and daven simultaneously.  While in our tefilla cocoons (hopefully this is true) davening became a study session; it became an opportunity to properly learn chapters of Tehillim, uncover their timeless meaning, and discover their relevance to us.  We were able to broaden our horizons and think about prayer differently than we thought about it until now.  Hopefully this more conscious and thoughtful tefilla will remain with us when we return to minyan.

Of course many of us did not spend our time in isolation working on improving our tefilla. However, it is not too late.  There still is time.  Now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel may be a good time to begin to see the light of enhanced prayer.

Of course we must now confront the question of how to incorporate the benefits we experienced individually into communal prayer.  Should shuls begin to offer a variety of services to meet all these different forms of prayer?  Should davening study groups become a regular feature in our synagogues?  How can we as a community use what we learned from our time in isolation to engage Jews who have different tefilla preferences?

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Our time davening beyechidus must not go wasted. It should be used as a focal point to help us reflect on what is really important.  What are the most essential values of tefilla, of family and of community?  Hopefully this focus will spill over and enrich our future tefilla the tefilla we say with a minyan.

About the Author
Rabbi Ezra Schwartz is a Rosh Yeshiva and Associate Director of the Semikha Program at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York
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