Middle School Tefillah in the Time of Coronavirus

In reflecting on the difficult times of remote learning during coronavirus, one of the unexpected highlights for our middle school community was daily tefillah with students and faculty. Along the way we supported each other, we sang, we laughed, and we found new meaning in tefillot that during normal times might not speak to us, at least not with the new voice and meanings they offered; we also felt moved to innovate.

It was stunning how many words and phrases jumped out at us anew as opportunities for kavanah appropriate to the day. We emphasized how our stay-at-home spaces are sanctified and meaningful with ma tovu (how goodly are your tents). We prayed for freedom of movement with matir asurim (God who frees the imprisoned); for the lifting of travel restrictions with roka ha’aretz al ha’mayim (God who sets land upon water). We had in mind all those who need strength with zokef kefufim (God who straightens the bowed) and ha’meichin mitzadei gaver (God who strengthens our steps) and more. So many of these aspirations bear repeating in Psalm 146 as well. And throughout we were aware that if it does not seem God is providing the healing we need – that she’asah li kol tzarki, God who provided for all my needs, rings hollow – then we must embrace our partnership with God in repairing the world and do whatever part we can.

As always, we emphasized that while we offer our tefillot as a Jewish people, we do not offer them for only the Jewish people. When we say ashrei yoshvei veitecha – happy are those who reside in your house – that house is not exclusive, as illustrated by the all-important line poteach et yadecha u’masbiah le’chol chai ratzon (you open your hands and feed all living creatures). When shacharit begins with the universalistic focus of briyat ha’olam (the world’s creation), we contemplated the needs of all humanity more than ever; so too when we noted that mal’ah ha’aretz kinyanecha (God filled the world with God’s creations), all of whom are beloved (kulam ahuvim). And with every day there is the hope of a new day dawning for the whole world, ha’mechadesh be’tuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit, because God, through God’s goodness, is constantly renewing the world’s creation every day.

And then, of course, there are our prayers for healing. Before the blessing of yotzer ha’meorot, the phrase boreh refu’ot (creator of remedies) jumped out at us like never before. As part of our tefillot we initially recited the lengthier mi shebeirach (prayer for healing) sometimes, and at other times sang Debbie Friedman’s song by that name. Eventually, as a community we channeled the healing power of Debbie Friedman during our recitation of the longer text by singing it to her beautiful melody. In that tefillah as well as in oseh shalom (the One who makes peace), we were careful to include kol yoshvei tevel, all the world’s inhabitants. We also saw the need to pray for caregivers, and so recited an adaptation of vechol mi she’oskim from yekum purkan.

Amidst our concern for and interconnectedness with all of humanity, it felt important to close with the universalistic message of adon olam. Lo and behold, a version of this piyut includes a line about God’s healing powers; we included it.

Our tefillot during these unique and challenging times, whether remote or with social distancing, are obviously less than ideal in so many ways, making it all the more fulfilling to find new meanings and connections to our lives. Our overlapping and delayed voices online were our holy cacophony, our ra’ash gadol (grand noise). And while we all continue to find meaning in our tefillot, we also look forward to the day that God is chadesh yameinu kekedem, that God renews our days as of old, and we can return to our lives as they were, with a new appreciation for the once familiar that can God-willing become commonplace again.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Nahmod is a middle school administrator at a school in Manhattan. He has a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and is also an attorney.
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