Looking Judaism in the Face

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Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, associate editor of TRADITION, serves as rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto. He sent these thoughts to his congregation in advance of Yom Kippur, and we are pleased to share them with our readers.

“Preparing for a [Pesach] without family, without guests, without shul, without friends made me feel like in some small way, I was earning the right to look Jewish history in the face, to claim my place among the countless Jews who made [Pesach] with far more determination, facing far more adversity.” – Rivka Press Schwartz

From early in the crisis, our community recited Tehillim (Psalms) every weeknight online (and later, when our building reopened, in person). For the first time in many of our lives, we experienced Tehillim in the midst of real anguish and fear. We joined generations of our people who had held onto Tehillim’s holy words for dear life. Together, we were earning the right to look Jewish history in the face, to claim our place among the countless Jews who had fervently breathed these words.

We felt the power of these words to transport us. Wherever we are spiritually and emotionally, Tehillim takes us before God.

My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth (Ps. 121:2).

Our stresses and challenges receive a new context. We share our struggles with our Creator. The words have a comforting sound. In the certainty of their poetic meter, they embody a certain confidence, “We will get through this.”

The Lord is your guardian, the Lord is your protection at your right hand (Ps. 121:4).

In reading these words, we connect to the emotional universe of their author. David was not just a great king. He was a great soul. He teaches us how to face fear. We talk to our fears. We say, “Do not abandon me, God” – acknowledging rejection’s loneliness. We put our pain and sorrow before God.

I pour out my complaint before Him; I lay my trouble before Him (Ps. 142:3).

Yet, we also enter the imaginative realm of hope. We speak about better futures. We dream of the moments after the crisis has passed.

Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation; I pay my vows in the presence of His worshipers (22:26).

As we recited Tehillim together, during those early days, we prayed for family and dear friends who were battling COVID-19. We were often overwhelmed by worry and a terrible unknown. Could our mistakes cause us to contract the disease or spread it to others? We mourned through those Psalms. We grieved for those lost to COVID-19 and those whom we could not properly mourn due to the crisis.

We mourned without Kaddish. We were unable to form a minyan in lockdown. We missed the public call yehei shemei rabba, “May God’s great name be blessed forever.” We made use of the Al hakol prayer – as a substitute for Kaddish. Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid (1150-1217) describes the use of a replacement for the Kaddish when a person lives in a village without a minyan. Al hakol first appears in Massekhet Sofrim (14:12) as a prayer recited quietly by an individual when the Torah is carried through the congregation (and many siddurim still place it there). The Otzar Midrashim quotes Rav Amram Gaon (d. 858) who makes use of the Al hakol prayer in place of Kaddish.

In replacing one prayer for another, we gained new appreciation for the meaning of each. Kaddish is a public call to sanctify God’s name with our words and our deeds. Al hakol speaks to the same aspiration but does so alone – without inviting others into a common chant.

We had the opportunity to reflect upon these messages under unfortunate circumstances. On Sunday, April 19, the day before Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) our daily online Tehillim was attacked by a group of anti-Semitic Zoombombers. They shouted slurs and posted pornographic images.

On the day after the attack, on Yom HaShoah itself, I spoke to our community about the meaning of Kaddish and the Al hakol prayer. We live as Jews not simply to survive. We live as Jews to make the world greater by bringing God’s presence more fully into it. We see within humanity opportunities for dignity, sanctity and Godliness. We represent something. How we were attacked says something about those who hate us, but it also says something about us. When we are attacked like we were that day, it is not simply we who are attacked, but also our vision for the world. We must not allow hatred to deter us and our vision. We must continue to proclaim proudly yitgadal v’yitkadash shemei rabba – may God’s name be made holy and great.

Praying together online during these difficult times allowed us to strengthen one another. To hear the regular sounds of our prayers together with those of others – even through technology – gave us each something extra. Last Rosh Hashana we did not know what the phrase “Social Distancing” meant. Throughout this crisis we have learned about something more than distance. We have learned about social togetherness. We have come to appreciate that much more the sounds and the privilege of Kedusha and Kaddish. We appreciate what it means to stand shoulder to shoulder (even at two meters distance) and how we become more together than which we are each apart. We have learned the meaning of social connections into the past and across the present.

We can look Jewish history in the face not simply because of the challenges we survive. We can look Jewish history in the face because of what we say and do in the face of challenge. The words of Tehillim allowed us to partake in an inter-generational continuity. Through those words, we tapped into the soul of our people and added ourselves to that soul. We did not simply speak the words yitgadal v’yitkadash – the words yitgadal v’yitkadash spoke through us. May we merit to sanctify God’s name in health, strength and well-being for many years to come.

[Published September 27, 2020]

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