I take pride in all of the dimensions of our synagogue. I have learned through the years that this is a good place to be. I appreciate the good work performed by our president, officers and trustees, as well as all those who represent Emanuel.
It was Rabbi Simon the Just who said the world rests upon three things: the Torah, worship and loving kindness (Perke Avot 1:2). This is a good time to discuss worship.
The fact of the matter is, for most of us, worship is a sometime thing. We come to the synagogue for prayer on “state occasions,” for the Holy Days when we receive a proper invitation (with tickets), or when the summons relates to a life cycle event (a funeral, a wedding, a berit).
The mood, or the need, is strong at such times, but little else brings us out for formal prayer. Public worship was not always commonplace, de rigueur. It became necessary after the Romans destroyed the Temple and the institutions of Judean life; all was lost. Rabban Gamaliel, the head of the Sanhedrin in the early first century ce, ordered the creation of a Jewish prayer book, a siddur, which means, everything arranged in proper order, to properly facilitate the recitation of the words of the prayers at the same time, when the Jews came together. The underlying motive was to bind together a fractured community.
Rabban Gamaliel’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer, a prominent sage in his own right, having many students and disciples of his own, objected. He insisted that prayer could not be fixed; it had to be spontaneous. And, he defied the ruling of the head of the Sanhedrin, his brother-in-law, Rabban Gamaliel, who punished his brother-in-law by imprisoning him so that he could no longer teach his disciples to offer spontaneous individualized prayers.
Now, it was not that Gamaliel was unappreciative of personal prayer; he knew that prayer is an inner expression of the heart. But he recognized that the community was in dire need of a new institution that could bring people together—all saying and doing the same thing at the same time. He understood the need and he responded to it.
Today, as we practice “social distancing” in accordance with the guidelines designed by health authorities who seek to protect us from an invisible enemy, we cannot join in public prayer which has as its agenda, finding support in the expression of the group. The act of being bolstered by each other’s closeness is something we must forego at the present time.
A prayer service on television may help to pass the time constructively, and may serve a purpose when we cannot be in physical proximity to one another. However, I suggest to you that now is the time, during this unanticipated episode of isolation from one another, to rethink and implement Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching; it is a time to recognize the usefulness and efficacy of personal devotions offered at home, where we can express the inner yearning of our hearts, our apprehensions and our concerns for family, for all of our loved ones, and for all of the things that matter most to us.
So take from your shelf your own prayer book, whichever prayer book you have at home. Make use of what is traditional, familiar and comforting—the Bar’chu and the Sh’ma—and then express your own thoughts and feelings; they require no formal structure, for your thoughts and feelings are your personal prayers. Then, too, you may choose to remember a loved one who has passed away, and recite the Kaddish. And perhaps to move beyond oneself and consider ourselves against the backdrop of the values that we affirm, and for a little while, glimpse the world our world could be. Here we have the opportunity, in our homes, to offer our own service of the heart.
Both Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Eliezer believed that the world rests on three things, one of them being worship. They weren’t wrong.
Dr. Robert S. Widom