Earlier this morning, I led a service from the Bimah in our Sanctuary. It was the first time I had led a Shabbat service there in a year. The last time I did so, it was to a totally empty Sanctuary. I knew that many members were watching online, but the Sanctuary itself was totally empty and it was an extremely lonely experience. I returned to the empty Sanctuary for the High Holy Days because the internet connection at our home wasn’t reliable enough. Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and all the way through Yom Kippur I led services to a totally empty Sanctuary. There were moments in those services when I sang and my voice was the only sound in the entire room, and it was incredibly moving for me personally to fill a sacred space with my own voice. There was an immediacy between me and God that I have only felt a few times before in my life. At the end of the Yom Kippur services, once the Ne’ilah service finished, once we had wished shanah tovah to everyone, once I ended the online streaming and was left alone in the Sanctuary, though, I started crying. It wasn’t just due to exhaustion or stress, although there was certainly much of that at that time. It was fundamentally because of the loss of essential human interaction during a time when human interaction is so necessary. Yes, having my rendition of sh’ma koleinu fill the Sanctuary was powerful, but can never be as fulfilling as leading a service with a community. A one-to-one connection, a moment of I-Thou in our Sanctuary between God and me is something to be treasured, but it doesn’t compare to sharing sh’ma in a minyan, because we don’t celebrate festivals alone. The Jewish community experiences time communally, and observes special moments in that time – Shabbat and the festivals – communally.
For just over a year, we’ve been streaming services on Zoom which allowed members to see me and have some sense of shared festival experience, although I could not see them because I had to focus on the slides. Over the last year, leading Shabbat services went for me from a shared journey to a weekly presentation of Jewish spirituality, enabling others to experience something that I could not. My spiritual role shifted from guide to presenter, from spiritual artist to professional sacred space holder, from companion to enabler. That’s why I genuinely want to return to in-person services so that we can share something spiritual together once again. At the same time, though, I’m nervous. I’ve got so used to leading services in my slippers from the comfort of my couch or my study that the transition to a new spirituality is nerve-wracking. For this morning’s Preschool Shabbat, I chose to force myself across that boundary, which was especially helpful as a taster of things to come since in two weeks’ time, we open up in-person Shabbat services for those who want to return physically.
With that in mind, I want to share my experience of Preschool Shabbat this morning. The first thing that struck me was when one of the older kids walked into the Sanctuary and said, “Rabbi Neil, I haven’t seen you in a long time.” I felt seen and so valued and had forgotten how wonderful it feels to be seen by members of a loving community.From the get-go, I was amazed that I remembered all of my shtick – all of my jokes and songs that I do with them – even though I haven’t uttered them for a very long time. When we lit the Shabbat candles, my voice broke a little and I had to hold back tears because we sang the brachah together and we were engaging in Jewish ritual together when for so long for me it has been a solo performance. I didn’t realize how much it had hurt my soul to not hear others praying along with me. When it came time for challah, I took a piece and tucked it into my mouth under my mask but the kids had to wait until lunch to have theirs. Suddenly, that communal act of breaking bread together not being able to happen reminded me that we are still in a pandemic and that coming back to services will feel profoundly different.
Once the Preschool kids left the Sanctuary I had a momentary pause. I was in shock. It was nice but it felt a little odd. It was returning to the old but in a new way. It was a return, but only partially. It was communal prayer for the first time in a year, which felt transformative, inclusive, shared, communal, and supportive, but it was also distanced, changed, and limited. I had finally experienced the wonderful but disjointed reality of an in-person pandemic prayer service. What I needed, and what I’m really going to start working on over the next two weeks, was a transition ritual, a ritual of return. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but now it has become even more relevant.
As I started to consider this ritual, I remembered this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha. In it, the Israelites send twelve spies into the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the land that was promised to them by God, and yet they are too terrified to move forward. The challenges facing them overwhelm them psychically. Their report back to the people is called “evil” by the Torah, because it strikes fear into the people and they yearn to go back to Egypt, to the worst of places, simply because it was familiar. The entire people become demoralized by the account. In response, God tells Moses that the entire people will be wiped out and will start again with Moses, but Moses argues that that cannot happen. He gets it. It’s not about the community leader. It’s about the people, some of whom are ready to go into the land and some of whom are not. In the end, most of them are banned from entering because of that hesitation when the time was right. Immediately regretting missing their window of opportunity, they rush to make amends and pour into the land where they are soundly defeated by the inhabitants because they’re not prepared.
This Torah portion helps me prepare the ritual of return in a few ways. It needs to acknowledge fear of change, fear of personal harm, trepidation of crossing the threshold, that some people will feel. It needs to hold those who remain on one side of the border while others cross over. It needs to acknowledge that it is not good for a prayer leader and the prayer community to be physically separated. It needs to acknowledge the transition of the prayer leader from nebbish with a Powerpoint presentation back to emissary of communal prayer. It needs to acknowledge a physical and psychological divide that was forced upon our community and that also needs to celebrate that it is slowly going away.
Like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, we are near the border of a transformative change. We won’t rush in blindly but we’ll also not yearn to go back to the worst out of fear of change. Together, we will find a balance. May God help us as we search for that balance, together, as a community, and let us say, Amen.