Reaching Out and Reaching up: How to Talk in Shul

It’s a classic joke:

A child asks her grandfather, “Zaidy, why do you go to shul every Shabbos?”

The grandfather answers, “What kind of a question is that?”

The child responds, “But Zaidy, you’re an atheist! You don’t believe in God! Why do you go to shul?”

Zaidy responds: “Ginsburg.”

“Ginsburg? What kind of an answer is that?”

“Ginsburg goes to shul every Shabbos to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Ginsburg.”

Like all great jokes, this one contains an important truth. The Hebrew word we use for a synagogue is not Beit Tefillah, a House of Prayer. We call it a Beit Knesset, a House of Gathering. We gather here to pray, learn, and eat, we gather here to remember and celebrate, and we gather here to schmooze with Ginsburg.

This is a special Shabbat, where we bless the upcoming month of Elul and enter the season of the High Holidays. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be spending a lot of time gathered in this shul, talking to God and talking to one another – each a sacred, vital Skokie Valley activity.

Taking a step back, I would say that we are growing tremendously in both areas.

With the increase of members, children in the building, and activities happening on Shabbat mornings, the general “talking to Ginsburg” level has gone up. Thank God!

At the same time, the level of our “talking to God” also goes up. Thanks to the work of our amazing gabbaim, shlichei tzibbur, and davenners, daily tefillot are stronger than ever. Friday nights are focused, rousing, filled with spirited song. Shabbat morning davening grows tighter and stronger too.

And yes, sometimes, the two values are sometimes in tension. As we have grown over the last few years, a wonderfully blessed challenge has arisen. It actually can get pretty noisy during davening, especially right now, Shabbat mornings.

How can we honor the holy connections we are trying to build with God and the holy connections we are building with one another? How can we balance them? What do we do when they come into tension?

These questions about God and Ginsburg are not new; I want to share two minshnayot from Masechet Brachot that I think shed light on the two poles.

The first is from the fifth chapter. It describes the act of Tefillah, which in the Mishna refers to the Amida, the central prayer we offer at every service.

אֵין עוֹמְדִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ כֹּבֶד רֹאשׁ. חֲסִידִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים הָיוּ שׁוֹהִים שָׁעָה אַחַת וּמִתְפַּלְּלִים, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּכַוְּנוּ אֶת לִבָּם לַמָּקוֹם. אֲפִלּוּ הַמֶּלֶךְ שׁוֹאֵל בִּשְׁלוֹמוֹ, לֹא יְשִׁיבֶנּוּ. וַאֲפִלּוּ נָחָשׁ כָּרוּךְ עַל עֲקֵבוֹ, לֹא יַפְסִיק:

One should not stand up to say Tefillah except in a reverent state of mind. The pious men of old used to wait an hour before praying in order that they might direct their thoughts to God. Even if a king greets him [while praying] he should not answer him: even if a snake is wound round his heel he should not stop.

This Mishna is meant to inspire us to strive to reach true spiritual communion with God when we pray. Waiting an hour in spiritual preparation. Having complete, unbroken focus, even in the face of danger.

The Mishna in chapter 2 offers something slightly different. The discussion here is on the laws of reciting the Shema, a central mitzvah in our liturgy.

בַּפְּרָקִים שׁוֹאֵל מִפְּנֵי הַכָּבוֹד וּמֵשִׁיב, וּבָאֶמְצַע שׁוֹאֵל מִפְּנֵי הַיִּרְאָה וּמֵשִׁיב, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר, בָּאֶמְצַע שׁוֹאֵל מִפְּנֵי הַיִּרְאָה, וּמֵשִׁיב מִפְּנֵי הַכָּבוֹד, בַּפְּרָקִים שׁוֹאֵל מִפְּנֵי הַכָּבוֹד, וּמֵשִׁיב שָׁלוֹם לְכָל אָדָם:

In the paragraph breaks [between sections of the Shema] one may give greeting out of respect and return a greeting; in the middle [of a section] one may give greeting out of fear and return it, the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Judah says: in the middle one may give greeting out of fear and return it out of respect, in the breaks one may give greeting out of respect and return a greeting to anyone.

This Mishna is very different! It acknowledges and even seems to encourage the giving of greetings in the midst of one of the most important parts of our davening.

In fact, the Talmud in Masechet Sotah 47a takes this one step further. It relates the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachia who had a complicated relationship with a disciple. A day came when the disciple came forward to repent and Rabbi Yehoshua was reciting Kriyat Shema.

יומא חד הוה קרי קרית שמע אתא לקמיה הוה בדעתיה לקבוליה אחוי ליה בידיה סבר מדחא דחי ליה

One day while [R. Joshua] was reciting the Shema, he came before him. His intention was to receive him, and he made a sign to him with his hand, but the disciple thought he was repelling him.

The disciple then goes on to practice idolatry and lead other Jews astray. The uncensored versions of the Talmud state that this disciple was Jesus! The Gemara is telling us that the cost of not being welcoming, even while in prayer, can be quite steep.

One of the most important spiritual opportunities we have as individuals and as a community arises when someone, whether they have never been in this room or have been davening here for 60 years, is to greet them. To welcome them. To make them feel seen.

This is part of the spiritual avodah of a Jewish community. For anyone who has walked into a shul and felt invisible, you know how damaging this can be.

To summarize, in these few sources we can see two clear values: the need for devotion and connection in prayer and the need openness and warmth to those around us. These mishnayot are not halacha lemaaseh – practical law. Each source gets tempered. As the halakhic literature develops, we uphold both values – the need to connect with one another in a place of communal gathering and the need for intense and focused prayer.

Today I would like to suggest that those two values are not in conflict but are actually two sides of the same coin.

I’m not a big Kabbalist, but a few years ago I started reciting something each morning that was prescribed by the Arizal, Rav Yitzchak Luria. The Arizal, famous for spiritual visions and his kavanot, intense visualizations of God’s name to be done while in prayer, someone who achieved deep spiritual devotion and connection with God on levels that you and I could never imagine. He had something interesting in his siddur. Before davening he would say, “Hareini mekabel alai at mitzvah Hoberei ve’ahavta lereicha kamocha,” “Behold I accept upon myself the Mitzvah of the creator to love my neighbor as myself.” Very nice, but why during davening, when it would seem, especially for the Arizal, that it’s all about connecting up to Hashem? The answer is because in Jewish spirituality you cannot really connect to God if you are not connected with your neighbor.

In order to reach up, you must first reach out.

Now, let’s talk tachlis – what does this look like? What does it look like at Skokie Valley? 

First, I want to encourage us to think of the difference between greeting and welcoming one another, which is viewed positively in a prayer setting, and longer conversations, which are not viewed so positively in a prayer setting.

A greeting is: good Shabbos! It’s so nice to see you. A greeting is a smile, a handshake, a hug. A greeting is moving closer to someone, so they are not sitting alone. A greeting is asking someone if they need help finding the page or need a hand settling into a seat. A greeting is blending voices together in song, a greeting is saying amen to someone’s Kaddish.

A conversation is: the family check ins, the weather, your favorite new podcast.

The sanctuary should be a place for greeting. Social hall should be a place for conversations.

In fact, an amazing thing happens each week in the Social Hall. Thanks to the leadership of the Coffee Klatch group, each week members of the shul from diverse backgrounds come together, get to know each other, check in on each other, and schmooze. This is a great, great thing for our shul. If you find yourself in the sanctuary having greeted someone but wanting to have a conversation, to check in on something you know was troubling them last week, or just to connect, that’s great! I encourage everyone – if you find yourself going beyond greeting to say, without a hint of guilt, “hey, let’s take it to the klatch.”

Because there is a cost when too much conversation takes over the sanctuary.

Yes, there is a cost to decorum. But I will be honest – I do not really care about “decorum.” I’ve been to shuls that have great decorum but little kavanah, little intensity and focus in prayer.

Why then is it important to limit conversation in the sanctuary? It’s important for the person in the room saying Kaddish for their parent who wants their memory to be honored. It’s important for the person praying for a sick child who wants to be able to focus. It’s important for the person davening for a better world, or for the person struggling with their relationship with God and hashing it out over an intense Shmoneh Esrei. It’s important for the person struggling with depression who gets strength and hope from prayer. It’s important for the person under tremendous pressure at home or at work who comes in this room for some spiritual peace.

Sometimes those people are me. Sometimes they are you. Every week I guarantee you that it’s many of us. We have no idea what the person sitting next, in front, behind or on the other side of the room is bringing into this room when it’s time to daven. That is why this room must, must be a sanctuary.

We absolutely owe it to one another to create a sanctuary. Many of us who have  a propensity to schmoozing and I am including myself, can work on this.

We owe it to ourselves to create an environment of powerful Tefillah each and every week! If you want a taste of this, come Friday night. What’s happening is amazing – every single week, people come together and greet, and hug, and daven, and sing. With great intensity and focus. Connecting to one another. Connecting to God.

Two more tachlis issues:

First: If and when the decibel level gets a little too high, and it will, I would like to suggest we use the following form of bringing the noise level back down: Silence.

I have been in a lot of shuls and this is consistently the most effective and most dignified way. There is a natural inclination to shush. I don’t love it. It feels infantilizing and shaming, and also just adds more noise.

Again, the instinct to connect and share in shul is a holy and good one. What we will be doing in the future is, if noise is getting too loud, just pausing, waiting for it to die down, and then continuing. Please do not shush.

Second: Some of our challenges are structural.

We are blessed with a full house; literally hundreds of people in this shul week in and week out. That presents physical challenges. There is noise bleed.

Those red and black curtains on the other side of the divider are not for vanity, believe it or not. They actually contain an elaborate sound dampening rig that Mark Vernon installed two years ago. It’s not perfect but it helps.

We’ve experimented with moving Tot Shabbat to different locations to help offset the noise in the social hall during davening. We’re going to keep trying new ideas and finding ourselves in new situations as the shul continues to grow and thrive. Please be patient and join the effort in thinking adaptively and creatively about how we organize and know that if we try something and it does not work, we will try something else until we find a solution that does. And if you have a great idea, let me or Debbie know!

Creating a shul that is uncompromising on warmth and welcoming and uncompromising on powerful davenning is not the job of the rabbi, the gabbaim, the baal tefillah. It is our job. Each and every one of us can and should play a role. Each and every one of us can and should offer greetings. Each and every one of us can and should take a conversation to the Coffee Klatch. Each and every one of us can and should welcome, pray and connect with more intensity, each in the proper place. And by doing all that more, together we will hone and shape the spiritual destiny of this shul, we will actualize both of these key Torah values:

Reaching out and reaching up.

Talking to Ginsburg, talking to God.

The above sermon was delivered at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, Shabbat Parashat Eikev, 5779

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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