Before the Coronavirus my first “appointment” of every day was attending the 6:45 am minyan (service) at my synagogue. That came to an abrupt end when on March 14 all the local synagogues shuttered their doors in response to the growing rate and risk of infection. For the last three months, until Monday of this week, every synagogue in my neighborhood has been closed and I and my fellow congregants have been left to pray individually at home. On this past Monday the synagogues resumed public prayer services on a very limited basis. Now there are a limited number of services with attendance restricted to 12 participants (selected by a lottery system) at each service. Strict social distancing must be observed (masks, maintaining 8 feet distance, gloves or hand sanitizing of hands etc.). Other Covid-19 precautions include a truncated service, the requirement to come on time and leave immediately at the conclusion of the service, and the necessity for using a personal siddur (prayer book) as opposed to the synagogue’s prayer books.
The mass closing of synagogues across the globe was an unprecedented historical event. Never before in Jewish history had virtually all places of worship been shuttered worldwide. It was emotionally wrenching to be without the very place one always turned to in times of need. Some saw in this is a Divine message requiring reflection and penance. Others interpreted it as G-d encouraging mankind to refocus on the importance of family. Others may have seen Covid-19 as a punishment. Whatever one’s perspective on the cause and message of the pandemic, the closing worldwide of synagogues was devastating.
Now fast forward three months to June 15 when our local synagogues “reopened”. You would think that it would be a cause for celebration. Finally, we are able to return to that safe sanctuary, to the one place that gives comfort in trying times, to a house of prayer at a time when the world needs prayer more than ever. And yet, for me, the return this week to the synagogue brought sadness; more than I have felt during the three months of complete shutdown. To what have I returned? Not to that warm, friendly, inviting spiritual venue where I have celebrated happy occasions, mourned the loss of relatives and friends, and where I have drawn strength in difficult times. No that is not to where I have “returned”. My synagogue is now a sad place; devoid of vibrancy, unable to serve as it did just a few months ago.
For over a thousand years Jews the world over have prayed for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; for its return to its former glory. Once a year we gather for a national day of mourning, Tisha Baav, to mourn the destruction of the Temple. It has always been a challenge for me emotionally to relate to that loss and to that day of mourning. While I have an intellectual understanding of the Temple’s significance and the great loss its destruction represents, the emotional connection to that loss has always been a challenge for me. Not now. Now I am beginning to understand.
Imagine a parent who banishes his child from the home and then relents and allows the child only a brief visit to the entry foyer. What is more painful to the child the total banishment or the limited partial “reconciliation”?
I am that child.