Zachor – Memories of the Way We Used to Pray

It is not a very usual combination when Shabbat Zachor falls out along with Parshat Terumah. Since there aren’t really coincidences in life, I think that this past Shabbat Zachor coinciding with Parshat Terumah was such a timely reminder of a consequence from our past year. There seems to be a need to reawaken some old memories of ours.

Parshat Terumah begins with G‑d instructing Moshe to accept contributions from the Israelites for the construction of a Tabernacle: “Let them make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them.” 

Once Am Yisrael has  been trained and proven to be a nation of givers, generous to the point where they are told to stop giving, then they have shown G-d that they are ready to be his nation and that they are indeed the chosen ones among whom G-d wants to reside within their community and their individuals. This is quite a beautiful and utopian idea.

In the additional reading of Parshat Zachor, We fulfill our Toraidic yearly obligation to remember and not forget the murderous barbaric nation of Amalek and how they attacked unprovoked the new Nation of Israel. And when hearing the Haftarah we are reminded that had the G-dly divined mission been completely accomplished by King Shaul and the Jewish peope, we then would have had a very different history presumably without the genocide of one third of our nation.

After the years with the Mishkan, Am Yisrael were privileged to the Beit Hamikdash/ Temples- 2 different times in history. Since its destruction life had changed drastically for the Jewish people and the Jewish law redirected the kedusha from the temples now emanating from the substitutions known as Mikdashei Miat- and our synagogues which we have prayed in since then. R Aaron Goldsheider writes that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt’l set out to carefully define the unique association between the Beit HaMikdash and the beit knesset (synagogue) today. The Rav demonstrated that this interrelatedness is true not merely in a homiletical sense but has clear halachic implications. The notion that the holiness of a beit knesset is a derivative of the holiness of the Beit Hamikdash can be seen in the very terminology of Mikdash Me’at (Talmud Megillah 29a). The fact that a synagogue’s sanctity stems from the Beit Hamikdash, and furthermore is counted as a Mikdash Me’at, has multiple repercussions regarding its structure and its ambiance:

Noting all this, it is well known therefore that the synagogue has been the center of Jewish communities’ religious practices for centuries. Additionally, also throughout history has taken much flack and has been the brunt of horrendous punishment for generations. The Jewish people have been protecting these buildings with intense passion and at times even at the expense of martyrdom.

Unbeknownst to many, there have been past pandemics throughout  the centuries where there are documented accounts of times where Jewish communities were told not to pray in the synagogue, but only at home, until the pandemic passes.

Our personal realities over this last year during the greatest pandemic that we have ever experienced has certainly been life changing for so many reasons.

One of these realities has been the closing on and off of synagogues. Tough and strange at first, as we prayed alone, then indoors again for a brief stint with capsules and restrictions. But ultimately the synagogues were barred shut with outdoor minyanim/prayer quorams  springing up everywhere but with governmental restrictions. We have braved the heat, altered certain texts that were usually said, changed prayer times to accommodate fasts and difficult weather. At times we had been blessed with beautiful weather days but most recently we had stormy almost inhumane outdoor prayer conditions and yet the loyalty of those in attendance would barely waver especially to support a fellow neighbor who needed the quorum of 10 to say the Kaddish prayer.

For many people, particularly but not exclusively the women, backyard services lacked the comforts of the synagogue in many aspects so much so that homebound personal individual prayers were preferred. I for the most part have been one of those engaging in homebound individual style prayers.

As the year had gone on, there have been all sorts of inclinations bantered about. Initially of missing the old synagogue services and even some of the annoyances about it. But eventually there were whispers and talks and sentiments expressed of actually enjoying the very local neighborly, curtailed attendance prayer gatherings. Some felt indeed that  this was so much better for there were no dragged out services, no bothersome speeches, no irritating members with annoying habits and so forth.

Overheard in certain backyard minyanim were even attitudes of never going back to the synagogue. 

Well, as the saying goes, just be careful what you wish for!

Many synagogues had been maintaining a significant service so that the shul was symbolically open, but for many it became difficult to maintain and to compete with the backyard minyanim as closer proximity was clearly preferred.

Perhaps there was a whispering sentiment of “Brov am hadrat melech”, which is a concept in Judaism that the more Jews that are present in a single place, the more God’s honor is increased.

This shabbat I went to a synagogue for the first time in 5 months specifically to hear the reading of Parshat Zachor. The service was actually outside the Synagogue, but the building was opened for some to sit and hear from the inside. There were very few of us inside and to really hear, one needed to be on the outside porch. Walking through the bare deserted shul was very sad indeed and one felt the echo of synagogue calling out to be populated once again. For me I felt like this was my place that I missed so much over this pandemic period- a rightful place in the sanctuary to hear the services with a view of the Bima and holy Aron Hakodesh- all but now  deserted. And as I prayed and heard the Torah portions I felt as if the undertones of Parshat Zachor juxtaposed with the command and instructions for the building of the Mishkan whispered a very important message.

The underlying Zachor was for us synagogue members to remember when we last heard these portions, right here in the synagogue. We should remember that and not forget it. We should not give up and should not settle for the status quo.  But as we heard that morning in Parshat Terumah- we must be those generous givers. We must  – contribute within ourselves. We must set the sentiment straight that when the time permits us, our prayers belong IN the synagogue. So we need to do tikkun based on people’s sentiments and we need to contribute our time, our tolerance, our expertise to do whatever is needed to make the beautiful Mikdash Miat- accessible and appealing to all, for that is where God resides. We must not  give up!

Perhaps we saw flaws in our synagogues and various minyanim and some feel that they have better ideas to make a better prayer experience. Well then, go right  back- to the Synagogue and make suggestions, get involved, volunteer. We need to be generous with our time and things as we need Hashem residing within us.

 Rabbi David Wolpe wrote that God is not ‘more present’ inside the sanctuary than out on the street. The building of the mishkan did not entice the divine presence to dwell where it would otherwise be absent. Rather, the human demonstration of devotion evokes God’s spirit. God’s presence awaits our willingness. God is, as the Kotzker Rebbe famously said, wherever we let God in.

With all its specifications, the mishkan is intended to produce an effect on human beings, not on God. There is a beautiful story told of the great Seer of Lublin when he was a boy. He used to visit the forest and when his father asked him why, the boy explained, “I go there to find God.” When his father smiled and said, “but my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” the future hassidic master answered, “God is, but I’m not.”

The building of the mishkan did not change God, but it changed Israel. God may be the same everywhere, but we are not.

There is much to learn and glean from this pandemic period. Arguably there are so many possible ‘reasons’ why this might have occurred but yet we can never know with certainty.

But certainly the juxtaposed whisper of Zachor with Terumah is saying:  it’s time to prepare and to get back to ourselves. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: ל זמן ועת לכל חפץ תחת השמים׃

And when our time comes, come one, come all to build a better, stronger, spiritually charged, more tolerant, more comfortable Mikdash Miat for each other; One with plenty of space for ourselves and to let the Holy one- our God-reside within. And when G-d resides within it-G-d resides within us.

About the Author
Phyllis Hecht is living in Chashmonaim with her family since their Aliyah-17.5 years ago from Queens, NY. She is a Judaic studies teacher with an MA in Holocaust studies. Phyllis has a teudat Horaah in teaching English and a license in special education reading recovery. She is also a licensed debating teacher. She has taught business English in Israel and abroad and has taught Holocaust and Judaic studies classes in Israel. Phyllis is currently a High school English teacher and Debating coach at the Zeitlin High school in Tel Aviv.
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