by Rabbi Gila Caine
(AJNews) – If you’ve never been to a Zoom prayer service, you might not realize what a honey-trap it is. I know that over the past two years we were compelled to move into online prayer for pikuach nefesh reasons (issues pertaining to life and death), but the comfort of sitting with our coffee and slippers, saying Shacharit in front of a screen and not with our family and friends next to us, is more than a crack in the structure and viability of Jewish life.
For the past few millennia our life has revolved around the triple combination of sacred space – sacred time – sacred peoplehood, we can find a strong reference to that in this week’s parsha:
אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמֹ֔רוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁ֖י תִּירָ֑אוּ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃ (ויקרא כ”ו 2)
My Shabbatot you shall keep, and my sanctuary you shall revere. (Vayikra / Leviticus 26:2)
For us to be a holy people connected to what makes life liveable, we must maintain the sacred rhythm of time as it has been developed in our ancient culture, and we must revere our sacred places of gathering. In case you think I’m reading “sanctuary” as pointing towards the ruined Temple in Jerusalem, I’ll clarify that no. I’m talking about our local shuls, schools and any other Jewish place of gathering. I learned this from a commentary on our verse written by Sforno, a 16th-century Italian rabbi and physician. Sforno reminds us that during our time in exile, the said sacred place is wherever Jews live and create houses of worship and study.
Studying can happen very nicely online, especially when we are dealing with adults (much less so with children and teens), but prayer can’t. Not real prayer. Real prayer is not about passive enjoyment of music and a good D’var Torah (sermon). Real prayer is about gathering with our community, this is why we pray in a minyan. Being with other people IS the act of being in sacred space, it’s not what happens after and next to speaking with God.
I think studying online is here to stay, and it makes a lot of sense to keep it that way since most studying is a meeting of our minds.
And, I assume my synagogue, like many others, will continue to create online prayer opportunities for those who must not, or can’t, come out in person.
Having said that, I want to call out to people – come back in person if you can! You might not be used to it at first, you might think you’ve forgotten how to be with others, but believe me it’s like riding a bike. You never really forget.
Rabbi Gila Caine is the Spiritual Leader at Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton.