Strange as it may sound, when I drafted to the IDF in August 2007, my biggest worry wasn’t the chain of command, stomaching field rations, or surviving the grueling midnight hikes. No doubt, they weighed on me, but I vividly remember how at the height of wilderness training – the most intensive week of basic training – my thoughts were focused on the upcoming High-Holidays and making sure that I spent Yom Kippur at yeshiva.
How could I possibly connect to the meaning of day deprived of the sea of white that fills the study hall of the Otniel Yeshiva, alternating between somber, heart-wrenching, introspection, and joyous celebrations of winding dance (without a hint of an empty stomach)?
It’s been many years since I prayed in the yeshiva (and yes, I made it there that year), but the sense of urgency to pray with the right congregation remains. For the past eight years, I have led Yom Kippur services in some capacity. As the son of a rabbi whose year is not complete unless he has led Kol Nidrei and Neilah and a mother who serves as his choir from the women’s section, anything less makes me feel incomplete.
Indeed, communal prayer empowers the individual to connect through his or her neighbor. We prop each other up through our collective voice, song, and example; climb onto each other’s shoulders to rise above the challenges of heart, mind, and smart-phone addled attention spans.
I crave the voice of the chazzan leading us in prayer, the response of the congregation to my starting a song. And yet, I have prayed in few minyanim since synagogues reopened. My belief in a community that prays together is belied by a glaring need for precaution and safety.
For the first time I can remember, I have not recited hatarat nedarim – the traditional annulment of vows before the New Year, which requires three witnesses (a difficult commodity when observing lockdown) – and I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I will not participate in the general annulment of Yom Kippur’s opening Kol Nidrei prayer.
Between Israel’s impending heat-wave, rising infection rates, and what seems to be an allergy to masks and social-distancing protocol in my chosen city of lockdown, I am trading in the sanctuary of synagogue for the sanctity of health – both personal and public.
My stomach roils with anxiety from this choice. To be honest, just the thought of praying at home makes me feel vulnerable, even naked.
Perhaps though, this is exactly how one should feel as we conclude this year of international vulnerability.
“In 2020,” a friend so aptly posted, “even the synagogues fast”.
Maybe this year it is appropriate to keep my vows intact until the Holy One annuls the divine vow of anger imposed upon us. Maybe this year praying at home is prescriptive for both body and soul.
One of the most famous High Holiday prayers, U’Netaneh Tokef, describes the awesome power of the Holidays somewhat paradoxically:
And the great shofar will be sounded, and a small still voice will sound.
The verse alludes to the lesson taught to the zealous Elijah the Prophet in the desert in 1 Kings, Chapter 19, verses 11-14. G-d is not found in the extreme – not in tempest, earthquake, or fire – rather in the kol d’mama daka, that small still voice.
This year, the hearts of all praying at home in official or self-imposed quarantine crack like trees in a storm. Our world quakes and trembles from the burden of the virus. Stomachs burn white hot with anxiety.
And the still small voice of the silenced synagogues roars louder than the cantor, piercing the heavens.