Always Return Home
Before finishing Rabbinical school, we had to get fully signed off on what was called the Tefillah checklist. In addition to all of our academic requirements we needed proof that we could lead any service that a Rabbi might theoretically be thrust into leading if their cantor, congregant, or community couldn’t lead. We had to know how to lead weekday services, shabbat services, holiday services the coincided with shabbat, how to read Torah, how to read the Megillot, and anything else you could think of. I came into Rabbinical school with a fair amount of experience with this stuff but there were some random things I had never lead and the anxiety before getting signed off was palpable.
I ran through a different sort of Tefillah checklist last Friday night at my synagogue and the anxiety was even higher. Last week we had a beautiful Bar Mitzvah in our community and many members of the family also came for services on Friday night so our crowd was larger than normal. From my perch on the bimah, I noticed a young man sitting that I didn’t recognize and who didn’t seem to be part of the family seating area.
In my internal dialogue, I calmed myself and said, ok, probably nothing to worry about. After a couple of minutes, I went to a congregant who has deep communal knowledge and prefaced my comments with “I’m probably being irrational, but…”
He also didn’t know him.
Light alarm bells started to go off. At that point, the checklist came into my head. Ok, I said to myself, let’s see if he is singing along to any of the prayers from Kabbalat Shabbat, fairly well known pieces even if the tunes are diverse in the Jewish world. Hmm, nothing there. He was sitting and standing as instructed but otherwise, no active participation.
At this moment, I decided to go outside to our security and ask them if they noticed anything. “Yep, we checked him when he came in” they reassured me. But El-Al security at the airport they are not. Even with their light assuagement, I went back in concerned.
By then, we were on to the evening service which has in it two of the more seminal prayers: the Shema and the Amidah. Ok, I said in further internal dialogue, this will be the moment. Maybe he’ll cover his eyes because most Jews have to know that, right?
As if I were beseeching the Holy One in that moment of the Shema:
Shema (c’mon do it) Yisrael (please) Adonai (oh no) Eloheinu( he’s not doing it) Adonai (oh god) Echad (damn).
At that point, I had one last hope although it was fleeting: the Amidah, a prayer that involves some slightly complex choreography. But even in its complexity, many Jews know some aspect of its movement pattern. Come on, I urged him, one more chance to pass out of the Tefillah checklist, this one with what I perceived as much higher stakes than the one from school. I was counting down the pages and there we were. I glanced over surreptitiously. Alas, there was nothing.
It was at this point that I had gone from slightly irrational to full blown conspiracy theorist. I was looking around at which exit I would use. When was he going to act? Would I hide or try to leave the building? By the time we ended, I had decided at our little gathering post-services, I was going to go up to him and see what was what, face to face.
As he lingered on the outskirts of the crowd, I attempted to breathe, calmed my spirit, and said, “Hi, you seem really familiar. Have we met?” My heart was beating out of my chest. After a totally normal pause that felt like minutes, he said, “oh yeah, i’m so and so, i’m friends with the bar mitzvah family from Rockland county…”
So the conversation went, a totally normal exchange that happens every week at synagogues across the world. But what preceded it was not normal. Or should I say, it’s now kind of normal in a really twisted and crappy way. This is what Jews are facing these days. I will never think of the Tefillah checklist in the same way again.
We come to our holy spaces and wonder, is that person going to attack me? We walk out of our homes and wonder, “should I take my mezuzah down?” I leave my house for errands and wonder, “is this a kippah or no kippah kind of place.” I don’t offer this for consolation. Truthfully this has always been what it’s like to be a Jew. We’re now just grappling with a reality has been obfuscated well.
As I reflected back on that moment, there is not much Torah that comforted me. And yet, I come back to shul. I don’t take my mezuzah down. In the past, if I wore my hat half the time and my kippah the other half, I now wear my kippah almost 100 % of the time.
The following text1 speaks to this inner drive:
The place to where a person runs in times of crisis, when the pain reaches to the depths of their soul, that place is their essence.
We cannot be frightened away from our places and our identities. In fact, when we are in distress, it’s those exact spaces that remind us who we are and who they are. This is who we are and these places are our homes. May we always find the courage to return to them.
R’Tzadok Ha’Kohen of Lublin-Resise Layla #50 with thanks to Rabbi David Bashevkin for the text.