It is very hard to escape davening as a mourner. It becomes a fixture in your daily life. Truthfully, it should be the same for everyone because we are all obligated to pray with a minyan three times a day, every day. But while the obligation stands, there is always some give, while during the year of aveilut, the pressure of time to be there at the very start and to stay until the very end is implacable.
But this second month something set off the routine for me. When Audrey and I moved to Manhattan, I started to go to the daily morning minyan at Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ). I would watch Rabbi Lookstein slowly walk over to the Baal Tefila after davening was over to offer some corrective advice. I dreaded the thought of having my errors pointed out to me.
During much of the COVID year, while I have been an aveil, Rabbi Lookstein has been staying safe and out of harm’s way in New York and Florida. But as things have improved he is back in New York more often and so he has been subjected to me leading the davening during the shloshim for my mother. Sure enough, after two days, he came over to me and said he would like to go over the tefila and show me how to do it right. We agreed to meet after davening the next Monday morning.
After tefila that day, we sat in his pew at the front of the shul. I could smell the faint aroma of aftershave, a sign of Rabbi Lookstein’s old-time gentility. He referred me to the KJ website to listen to his recordings of the tefila. I explained to him that I was more of a Dvar Torah kind of guy rather than a shaliach tzibbur type, but that I would be glad to learn what I was doing wrong. He then patiently went through a number of phrases in the tefila, where pausing at the right place after a specific word was essential to capture the precise meaning of the prayer. Most of them centered on pausing after a noun that is followed by an appositive phrase, for example, the king (pause), who loves righteousness and justice pausing, the merciful (pause) who is generous with forgiveness. Others involved articulating the vowels correctly to ensure the right word is expressed (hodo versus hodu).
For me, this has had two effects. The attention to these details scattered through shacharit has served as signposts in the terrain of the tefila. They stand out from the litany of words that after ten months of aveilut and with ten more to go I could recite almost by heart. They have kept me in the moment, forced me to focus on where I am and what I am saying, and made me more mindful of what I am doing on the bimah
But there is a second more unexpected effect. Rabbi Lookstein has been at this for more than half a century. He has seen thousands of people pass through his shul and has innumerable close relationships with congregants established over years. Is there time for a new face like mine, especially one that joined KJ after his retirement? Yet, he pays attention to the details, insists that people do it right, and most importantly spends the time to show everyone, new or old, young or elderly, how to do it properly. It is a model for all of us whatever we do — design buildings, take care of patients or teach students. Detail always matters and getting the job right means getting the big and little pictures right. But most importantly, consistently spending the time to guide others in accomplishing this, is a mark of generosity and greatness. I am glad I can recognize it when I see it and benefit from it when it is offered to me.