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Saying goodbye to my seat in shul

I don’t know how to say this, but this Shabbat, I won't be at our meeting place -- don't worry, it’s not you, it’s me
Star of David outside synagogue. (Public domain, https://libreshot.com/star-of-david/)

We meet once a week every week in the same spot, almost like a long awaited date.  We always meet in our favorite spot, the third row from the back, on the right side.  The side near the big windows, not near the mechitza. You and I are good friends. We have been meeting like this for years and we share memories of singing together and moments of quiet tears. You were there for my aufruf and for countless other family celebrations.

We need to talk. I don’t know how to say this, but this week I will not be coming. I will not be at our meeting place as you expect. I thought of simply not showing up, but I didn’t want to stand you up and that’s why I need to tell you that this Shabbat I’ll be staying home. It’s not you, it’s me.

This shabbat the rabbi told me to stay home. I take solace in knowing that you, my seat in shul, will sit empty, longing for me as I will miss you. What is a synagogue without a congregation if not a building with a collection of empty chairs? The congregants have been replaced by fear and anxiety. In place of the community of Jeshurun sits the pandemic presence.

As I sit in my living room reciting the morning prayers, I say the words “Ashrei yoshvei veitecha,” “Praised are those who sit in Your (God’s) house.” A tear wells up in the corner of my eye. Praised are those who sit in Your house, and I am not in Your house. I’m in my house, a poor substitute for Your house of prayer.

This Shabbat:

  • I will miss that calm feeling as I shut off the past week while we sing “Lecha dodi” to start Shabbat, 

But I will create a Shabbat atmosphere by singing at the start of Shabbat together with my family.

  • I will miss seeing my friends, young and old, as I walk into the sanctuary,

But I will call a few of them on Friday to check on them.

  • I will miss praying together with other people,

But I will pray for other people, those who are sick, those who are scared, and those who are risking their lives to save others.

  • I will miss the man who sits behind me reading his never-ending pile of parsha pamphlets.  

But I will read a Jewish book.

  • I will miss that guy who always greets me with a little-too-firm handshake,

But I will greet my family with a hearty “Shabbat shalom” or “Good shabbos” after candle-lighting.

  • I will miss debating the rabbi’s speech,

But I will think of a Jewish question for discussion to share with those who are with me at home.

  • I will miss my friend with the super flashy suits who always looks like he walked out of a magazine,

But I will change out of my pajamas and wear special clothes to remember that it is Shabbat.

  • I will miss walking in and passing that wise mother who is always teaching her daughter to pray with her whole heart,

But I will set an example for my children or others in my house by praying in my living room.

  • I will miss the crowd of children that crowd around the tables before kiddush and race to grab the last potato chips before the adults even approach,

But I will prepare special food so that my children and I myself remember that it is Shabbat and not just another day that we are “socially distanced” in our homes.

Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha, praised be those who sit in Your house. Dear seat I will miss you, but I must remember that “the dead praise not the Lord (Psalms 115:17).” Today’s mitzvah is to stay home and Shabbat (the sabbath) will be joining me. I’m sorry dear seat but you will need to wait for me at our spot. Dear God, I pray “ve’heishiv et haavoda el dvir beitecha” –-“and return the service to the realm of Your house (Daily Prayers).”  Dear seat, for now I must say goodbye but, dear seat, I will return to you. 

About the Author
Originally from Cherry Hill, NJ Avi Tilonsky enjoys experiencing the exciting and ever changing Jewish life in Jerusalem. Prior to moving to Israel Avi worked as a communal rabbi and in adult Jewish education. Today, he is privileged to work for a Jewish organization helping Jewish communities around the world. In his free time Avi likes to go exploring on his bike, trying new recipes, and participating in storytelling events.
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