A lot of emotions! A lot of mixed emotions from our first full Shabbat in shul with a hashkama minyan, an outdoor minyan and an indoor minyan Shabbat morning.
First, the good! It was so wonderful seeing so many people that I haven’t seen in a while on Shabbat morning. I especially give credit to those who davened outside in the heat. That’s real mesirut nefesh for tefillah b’tzibbur! And everyone followed the rules – the masks, the social distancing – some out of a legitimate health concern and some because these are the rules of the community. The achdut in the community to adhere to our shul’s guidelines was very much appreciated.
Second, the not so good. An article that Rabbi Akiva Males, Rabbi of Young Israel of Memphis, wrote resonated with me. He expressed his conflicting emotions upon returning to shul by citing the story in Sefer Ezra when large segments of the Jewish people expressed the joy over a new Temple, a new Mikdash, in Jerusalem. At that time, however, many others cried over the glaring discrepancy between the first Mikdash and the second Mikdash. Similarly, when I returned to shul, I missed seeing so many regular shul goers sitting in their regular seats, some for over 45 years. I know they are hurting because of their inability to come to shul. I missed seeing entire families in shul as we do not have youth programming at this point. I missed seeing all of the young children excitedly singing the Shabbat morning davening during youth groups and coming in (at appropriate times!) to get candy from the candymen. I missed the socializing after davening at our weekly Kiddush when I could catch up and connect with all of our members. Part of me wanted to cry as Rabbi Males so beautifully explained. We are far from a “normal” shul experience.
While part of me connected to those Jews in the beginning of the second Mikdash, I noticed another familiar feeling as well. In some ways, last shabbat evoked feelings of Yom Kippur. Not the Kol Nidrei part of Yom Kippur or the Neilah part of Yom Kippur, but the middle of the day on Yom Kippur, perhaps during the middle of musaf on that day. I find that there comes a point in time during Yom Kippur in the middle of the day when you are sitting in shul listening to the Chazzan and the davening is going on and on. There are no young children running around in shul, just adults with their machzorim and you realize that you are in the middle of a marathon, a Divine spiritual marathon, that ends several hours from now. It’s just you and God for the next few hours – no distractions, just you and God. Yom Kippur is the Shabbat Shabbaton – it’s the super day of Shabbat, of refraining from work, bodily needs, a time when we don’t need to eat because like the Gemara in Brachot describes the Bnei Yisrael at Sinai, Bnei Yisrael didn’t need to eat or drink because they were “nehenim mi’ziv ha’sehchina” – nourished by God’s Divine presence.
At this point in time during the shul’s re-opening, there are no young children, there are no kiddushim, there is no socializing during davening because we are all sitting apart from each other. So for a few moments during last Shabbat’s davening, I imagined myself during that Yom Kippur marathon. There was nothing else to focus on during davening, except… davening. And maybe we need that just a little bit more in our lives. We need a little more of that “nehenim mi’ziv ha’shechinah” feeling, being in the moment, being one with God, with no other care or worry.
For those of us who feel comfortable enough to attend shul, these number of weeks or months while we are in the interim stage of not being at full capacity and having to be at a social distance from one another present a tremendous opportunity for us, an opportunity for us to truly connect with God without any distractions while we are in a minyan and maybe even to allow us to re-think the way we approach our synagogue as a makom tefillah.