By Rabbi Zolly Claman – We are living through unprecedented times. Since the virus has spread, and especially since we officially closed the doors of our shul until things calm down, I have been fielding calls, text messages and emails all asking the same things in different ways. Some with an underlying tone of fear, others grappling with the anxiety of not being in control and knowing what is over the next bend. But all with the same implicit yearning for meaning or reason within this pandemic and global chaos.
I am no prophet and I most definitely do not have answers to everything. Specifically, the greatest theological questions that have stumped great historic leaders like Moses and King Solomon, are the ones I don’t profess to have answers to.
But still, I think there is room for interpretation towards the way this global crisis has hit us in Jewish communities around the world. I don’t intend to explain the ways of G-d, but rather to strengthen ourselves with an empowering idea and try to leverage these difficult times towards a more meaningful life.
Communities around the world are unforcefully closing their shuls for the first time in history. I have friends and family who belong to synagogues in Vancouver, Ottawa, Columbus, Jerusalem, Berlin, New York, Chicago, Miami and the list goes on. There is one thing we all have in common: our synagogues are not running daily minyanim or Torah classes.
Superficially it seems as though Judaism is on break until the virus subsides. However, it is the opposite that is the truth. We are accustomed to feel that the epicenter of our Judaism is our Synagogue. That is where we go to pray, study, celebrate and mourn. What we are being reminded of now, is that was never the intention. The epicenter was always meant to be our homes.
The first Shabbat that we closed Beth Israel we were to have read Parshat Vayakel, which speaks about the building of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle – the very first place of worship in Jewish history. Putting the irony of that being the first communal reading that we did not fulfil due to the closure, we must remind ourselves of a nuance in the very verses of the Torah which bear a poignant significance to our lives.
When we are introduced to the concept of having a place of worship, G-d tells Moshe to command the nation to, “make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exodus, 25:8). The commentaries point out that it does not say ‘and I will dwell in it.” But rather the dwelling is with the people themselves, “among them.”
In other words, the place of worship – the tabernacle or the shul – was always meant as a recharge and calibration of the commitment of the Jewish home and heart. G-d dwells within us – not exclusively within the physical edaphus of the synagogue.
Allow me to quote an essay composed by one of the great Jewish leaders of the 19th century, Rav Samsun Rephael Hirsh: “If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and Jewish home. All synagogues close by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.”
This shocking theoretical idea was never actualized by Rabbi Hirsch, but it seems to have been actualized by G-d through the COVID-19. Perhaps it is a wake-up call to re-evaluate our Jewishness in our homes. Maybe we need to ask ourselves if we have been relying on the place of worship too much for our service towards our Creator. We go to shul to pray, but do we know how to pray ourselves? Do we leave prayer with a feeling of connection and love? Do we know how to unload our stresses and successes on G-d? To me, this is resonating as a personal wakeup call and I extend the invitation outwards for the ringing to be heard.
My addresses on these pages are usually lighter, but I truly believe there is something worth contemplating here. Our community has been sticking together through the Virtual Torah Centre that I created. In it, we share live classes and prayers.
This message is an empowering perspective to look at the isolation as a calling and this time of crisis as an opportunity. May we all have the ability to utilize this stage to re-calibrate what it means to be a Jew.
With warm wishes towards a kosher, healthy, inspiring and meaningful Pesach.
Rabbi Claman is the spiritual leader at the Beth Israel synagogue, Edmonton’s Modern Orthodox congregation.
If you would like to be included in the Virtual Torah Centre, email your name and number to Rabbi Claman and he will add you to this very special group – firstname.lastname@example.org.