Never Stop Inspiring your Micro-Congregation (Shabbos 116)

After many years of praying for a child, Chana is finally blessed with a little boy.  She calls him Shmuel and dedicates him to a lifetime of service to Heaven.  She brings him to the High Priest, Eli, to be mentored.   And Eli takes the lad under his wing, attending to his physical and spiritual needs.

One evening, Shmuel is lying in bed and he hears Eli calling him. “In those days the word of Hashem was rare; prophecy was not widespread.” He runs to Eli and says, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli replies, “I didn’t call you; go back to sleep.” So he goes back and lies down.

Once again, he hears the voice, “Shmuel!”  He rises and goes to Eli and says, “Here I am; you called me.” But he replies, “I didn’t call, my son; go back to sleep.”  Now Shmuel had not yet experienced prophecy; the word of Hashem had not yet been revealed to him.   Hashem calls Shmuel again, a third time, and he rises and goes to Eli and says, “Here I am; you called me.”

Eli then realizes that Hashem is calling the boy. And Eli says, “Go lie down. If you are called again, say, ‘Speak, Hashem, for Your servant is listening.’” Shmuel goes to his place and lies down. Hashem calls as before: “Shmuel! Shmuel!” And Shmuel responds, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.”

וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַאֲר֨וֹן בְּרִית־יְהוָ֜ה נֹסֵ֣עַ לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים לָת֥וּר לָהֶ֖ם מְנוּחָֽה׃

״וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה׳״, וְאָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא: שֶׁסָּרוּ מֵאַחֲרֵי ה׳.

“And they journeyed from the mountain of Hashem [a three-day distance and the Ark of the covenant of Hashem journeyed before them a three-day distance to search out for them a resting place].” Rabbi Chama son of Rabbi Chanina said: They turned away from Hashem [and hurriedly fled Mount Sinai].

Our Sages tell us that as soon as we were given the opportunity, we ran as fast as we could from Sinai, in order to ensure God wouldn’t have the opportunity to “burden” us with any more mitzvot than He had already given us.  What is the significance of the repetition of the three-day distance in the verse?  The Kli Yakar suggests that the people and the Ark each journeyed for three days, but were heading in opposite directions. By the end of the excursion, we were not just three, but six days apart from the Holy Ark!  It was only then that we felt we had found a “resting place” from the overwhelming responsibility we had just been given.

It’s now been over three months that we haven’t been able to attend shul.  For many, it feels like six months, or a lifetime.  The further we drift from the Ark, the further it feels as if it is drifting away from us.  But very soon, please God, we will be reopening our shuls.  While we won’t all be able to enter right away – many of us must continue to keep our distance due to health vulnerabilities – it won’t be easy for those of us who may enter, either.  Things will look different, from social distancing to mask-wearing to limited singing.  And so it’s tempting to say you’ll just stay away until things return to normal.

For many, that’s the default position.  The longer we’ve been away from shul, the harder it becomes to get our groove back.  That might be have been a daily groove or a weekly groove.  Whatever your groove, unfortunately, over the last few months, we’ve all gotten used to a new groove.  How do we snap out of it and return to our Holy Ark that now seems so far away?

The key lies in the understanding of the process of snapping out.  Rubber bands snap.  But rubber bands are designed to propel.  The reason you pull a rubber band back is in order to propel an item even further forward.  That needs to be our goal in the new normal.  You might have pulled back, but you didn’t snap.  God pulled you back to propel you even greater spiritual distances.  What special mission has the Almighty endowed you with over the lockdown period to take with you into the next phase of life?

Over the last few months, your home has become your shul.  That means that, in a certain sense, you’ve become the rabbi, chazan, chair, and warden or your micro-congregation.  An integral element of the role as spiritual leader of your micro-congregation has been to inspire your congregants, and keep them spiritually invigorated through the darkness of the lockdown.

And you’ve done an incredible job.  Davening, learning, chesed-ing with your members.  As we begin to see light at the end of the tunnel, don’t stop now.  Things are changing, but your task is still as vital as ever.  Your spiritual leadership now requires you to inspire your members as they enter a shul building and service that is not quite what they expected.  They’re going to be looking to you for their spiritual cues.

If you’re muttering under your breath about the hopelessness of the situation, that message will be heard.  And they’ll feel and behave accordingly.  If you’re excited and passionate, despite the challenges, then that’s what they’ll hear.  And they will be excited and passionate despite the challenges.

The mood in our shuls is going to depend on each and every one of us.  As a community, we have a responsibility to radiate joy and excitement.  Our children might not yet be allowed back to shul, but we must bring the joy and energy of shul back home to them.  Multiple services mean that fathers and mothers can take turns being in shul and bottle up the spiritual power to reinfuse our micro-congregations.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis has taught us: Don’t compare the new circumstances to six months ago.  Compare it to the last three months.  On that score, we should feel so blessed to be able to reopen our shuls.  You may not have experienced prophecy until now.  But Hashem is calling you to lead in ways you never imagined.  May you be a spiritual light to all those around you!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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