Yom Kippur - 2020-5781
My Regular Seat in Shul
Jewish mourning customs and practices are not only ancient, but they are psychologically relevant today. The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, based on just a few references in the Torah, developed the customs of: tearing our garments, sitting shiva, mourning for 30 days and extending that mourning to 11 months for a parent. The gradual process of grieving the death of a loved one more or less reflects the process of grief that we would go through. When first hearing the news of the passing of a loved one, we are naturally angry and upset to the point of tearing our clothes in anguish and despair. Wearing the black ribbon symbolizes that grief. Staying at home for shiva - literally 7 days - reflects how we are not able to cope yet with the reality of the death in our lives. Though as mourners we may not be able to register all the people who come to express condolences, on a subconscious level we know that our presence as the comforter provides strength and support for the mourner. After shiva as the mourner slowly resumes a normal routine, life is still different. Kaddish is recited and one refrains from participating in events and programs that are purely entertainment. Though all of us grieve and mourn differently, and the circumstances surrounding each death is different, psychologists agree that these customs reflect sound psychological practice.
Of all these customs and traditions there is one I’d like to focus on this morning. We are taught that a mourner who returns to synagogue for the first time after the funeral, should change his or her usual seat. How does changing one’s seat in shul affect one’s grief? What does it have to do with mourning? And what can we learn about it today especially as we observe yizkor while the pandemic still rages around us?
In the very first section of the Talmud, near the beginning of the tractate that deals with daily prayer (Berachot 6b), Rabbi Ḥelbo said that Rav Huna said: One who sets a fixed place for his prayer, the God of Abraham assists him. And one page later (Berachot 7b), Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: Setting a fixed place for prayer is so important that one who sets a fixed place for his prayer, his enemies fall beneath him.
The rabbis, especially in the first section of the Talmud, not only teach a lot about prayer, they also emphasize in somewhat exaggerated ways, how important prayer and its accompanying practices are. The rabbis lived at a time of transition. The Temple had stood in Jerusalem and the mode of worship was the regimented and formal sacrificial system. The kohanim - priests - had their assigned functions and places around the altar and the Israelites had their allotted places as well. Prayer as we know it didn’t exist in the Temple, rather songs and perhaps formal blessings were recited as the sacrifice was offered to God.
In order to ensure the survival of Judaism, the rabbis had to be creative. Without the Temple, when it was destroyed by the Romans, the Jewish community could have vanished. As the Temple was the central focus of worship and the foundation of everything Jewish, its destruction could have meant the collapse of Judaism. Therefore the rabbis instituted new customs or transformed little known practices into more significant roles. Prayer became the substitute for sacrifice. And just as one had a set place in the Temple, so too we need to have set places in our temples, the synagogue.
Another aspect of this teaching is the connection to Abraham. The rabbis often hark back to Abraham and Sarah - the first parents of the Jewish people - as the founders of many Jewish practices. The further back the rabbis could trace a tradition, the more authoritative it could be. So by saying that when we set a fixed place for our prayer the God of Abraham will assist us - not just God, but the God of Abraham - then we learn that we are fulfilling a 4,000 year old custom. That set place in shul in Olney becomes another link in the chain of Jewish history that stretches back in time.
But even more powerful than the rabbinic innovation we learn and the history we connect with, the statement that our enemies will fall before us is the most intriguing. At a time when Jews were living under the harsh and oppressive Roman Empire, when Jews were tortured for being Jewish, the rabbis tried valiantly to instill hope and faith. They taught often about the benefits of Jewish practice on protecting the people. The rabbis felt that if the people could remain steadfast in their practice and faith in the face of such tyranny then God would surely bless and reward them.
But, aside from understanding the role of the rabbis and the nature of their teaching, there is something deeper and more psychological to this particular teaching. The idea that enemies will fall before us when we have a set place for prayer implies a sense of confidence and strength. Sitting and standing in a set and usual spot gives us the spiritual fortitude to pray. We know where our place is, we become accustomed to the view of the congregation and the ark and then we begin to feel as if we are in God’s presence.
And I would go another step further. Having a set place in shul reflects the psychological need many of us have for routine and habit. Psychological studies have shown that when we are able to conduct our lives according to our routines, when we are able to sit in comfortable places, and when we can sit in our chair or go to work as we usually do, then our stress levels are lowered. Set routines provide a peace of mind. Habitual places to sit, stand and sleep enable us to relax and enable us to be mentally healthy.
For example, I have my set spot to sit in the Grosberg-Baumgart Chapel. At the daily service I always sit in the front side row closest to the ark.That is my fixed place in shul. I feel comfortable there and it provides me peace of mind as I pray the service. I know that if I ever change my place I would feel uncomfortable. Things would seem strange or out of sorts and I know it would take me a while to get used to the new spot.
This is exactly what the rabbis had in mind when they suggested that mourners need to change their fixed place in shul. The mourner already feels out of sorts. The world looks different as the mourner copes with the death of a loved one. The more sudden the death, the more upset and the more at a loss one would feel. At those times the mourner would want to return to set routines, would want everything to be in its place so that the mourner can feel centered again. But the rabbis said no. We have to keep the mourner feeling different. By forcing the mourner to sit in a different place, the mourner is forced to feel lost. The mourner is forced to look at the world differently. The mourner is forced to feel different.
The congregation of regular attendees, though, would immediately recognize that something was wrong. They would see the mourner sitting in a different seat and would know that means that they, the congregants, need to go over to express condolences. The different seat forces the congregation to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim - comforting the mourner. It forces people to approach, to say words of comfort and to be there for support. By switching seats then - even though it reinforces the discomfort of the mourner - it helps the mourner recognize that healing comes from community. We’re here for you, we say to the mourner, and we will help you eventually literally and figuratively to return to your regular seat.
Today, Yom Kippur 2020-5781, we are all mourners. Our lives have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all mourning the change of routine, perhaps the loss of work, and perhaps we have been sick or family or friends have been sick with the virus. We haven’t been able to pray together in synagogue. We haven’t been able to be socially close with family and friends. We haven’t hugged someone outside our family for at least 6 months. The virus has taken a physical toll on us and an emotional toll. We have lost our fixed place and we are wandering lost and aimless through this pandemic.
We also feel at times like the rabbis of the Talmud. If they said when we have a fixed place that we have a relationship with the God of Abraham and enemies will fall away from us, then the opposite would be true. When we are without set structure, when we are out of our comfort zone then we feel disconnected from God and we feel our enemies approaching and gathering strength. We feel overwhelmed, we feel inundated by life, we feel at a loss for where to turn. The psalmist expresses these feelings so well when he says - אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבוא עזרי - I lift my eyes up to the mountains [and ask] from where will my help come? And he says ממעמקים קראתיך ה׳ - from the depths [of despair] I cry out to you O God. In many places throughout the 150 psalms, the author eloquently expresses this sense of loss and despair that we feel today. Where can we turn? How can we regain our equilibrium? How can we feel confident again?
Our tradition is based on a relationship with God and a relationship with our community. We can’t be fully Jewish, according to Jewish tradition, unless we participate in Jewish activities with other Jews and we can’t be fully Jewish unless we believe in God. Those two essential elements - God and community - provide the foundation upon which everything else in our lives is built. In the first chapter of Genesis God recognized that it’s not good for Man/Adam to be alone. We are social animals and we need each other for strength and rejuvenation.
We have been living without that essential aspect of life for half a year. We haven’t been able to gather safely, we haven’t been able to be with each other in person to pray and to celebrate, we haven’t been able to be with each other to mourn and cry. Though ZOOM has been a remarkable technology that has enabled us to see and be with each other it is only a pale substitute for the physical contact we so sorely need.
Perhaps the loss of community would be able to be withstood if our faith in God were strong. That faith would enable us to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That faith provides us the spiritual and emotional strength to withstand crises and to withstand changes in our routine. But when our faith is questioned, when we ask to see God or to know God as we suffer through these awful times, then we feel lost.
I have been heartened by the strong response to our ZOOM services. In the evening and on Shabbat it is wonderful for me to see everyone’s smiling face. Everyone who signs on tells me that they are doing fine, that they are coping, and they say, “what choice do we have”. The resilience and strength that I see in you gives me strength and support. I have felt lost. It is challenging to conduct services over ZOOM. It is weird to be talking to you today from my home. But it is heartwarming to see you in your screens, wearing your tallitot, davening from your prayer books. We are all saying that we know community is necessary. We know we need to be with other people. We will do anything we can with the help of technology to maintain our connection with this sacred community.
Though it is a virtual background, the picture of the Torah scrolls dressed in white you see behind me, gives me spiritual strength. Though I knew we weren’t going to be together in our shul sanctuary this year, I knew I still needed to change the Torah covers. I look forward to that ritual every year. Not only does it reflect that I’m a creature of habit, but I feel a tremendous sense of spirituality when I change the covers. The smell of the cloth, and the bright white of material, somehow remind me of the sanctity of this season. It is my opportunity to be alone in the synagogue and with God as if I’m saying to God, here I am again. We made it to another new year. I am humbled to be in Your presence. May the purity of these Torah covers help search my soul and become pure. May the words of these Torah scrolls inspire me to live up to these Jewish values. May you God give me the strength to lead these services and may You God give me strength to continue to withstand this pandemic.
As I have been fortified by your presence and as I have been uplifted by God’s presence, I pray that you will be too. Though at times we may feel lost and at times we may feel that we have been abandoned by God, I pray that you have the strength to find your way back. I pray that you have moments that you feel God’s presence in your life. It is only through our efforts, through our determination to be with community, that we can be strengthened. May we find our way back to our fixed place and may we thus feel connected to the God of Abraham and may our enemies fall away. Amen.