I haven’t had what I’d call a deep spiritual experience over the last several years… in fact, it’s been a long, long while since I felt like I was really making a connection with a higher power. But last night, I had one of those moments that felt like what I imagine prayer feels like, and in the most unlikely of places – standing in my mom’s sitting (and TV and guest) room/office with the TV on and our synagogue’s Shabbat service livestreaming over our Amazon Firestick.
There they were, the four clergy members on the bimah – senior rabbi, cantor, cantor-rabbi and junior rabbi – sitting on uncomfortable-looking chairs placed in a semi-circle, bookended by the two rabbis with guitars. (“Two rabbis with guitars walked into a bar…”) They were seemingly alone in the sanctuary, except for maybe the camera operator and, I’m guessing, some anxious off-camera staff members. If you’d walked by the screen quickly, you might have thought you were looking at a CNN town square panel or a city council meeting on public television.
Sure, they were slightly self-conscious, but how could they not be? When have they ever conducted a Shabbat service this way?
Never. According to tradition, we never pray without a quorum of at least ten people. Tonight, it was just me and Mom in our sweats on the couch watching the four of them on the screen. It was surreal and, for me at least, strangely spiritual.
Here were the familiar songs and prayers that I’ve come to know from accompanying Mom to temple on Friday nights over the last two and a half years that I’ve lived here. We probably go once every 2-3 months, not every week but often enough so that I’ve come to know how this gang rolls. As I watched – and fully participated – in the service, I realized I’ve grown to really appreciate the approach this team has to group prayer. There’s a LOT of music – all four of them are musical, and though the senior rabbi isn’t much of a singer, he can do some nice guitar picking, and the other three all have nice voices. (If only they lowered every song by a few keys, I’d love it even more, but we can’t have it all now, can we?)
When they broke into the Wailin’ Jennys “One Voice” as a lead-in to prayer, my heart sang too. I saw the Canadian folk trio perform this gorgeous ballad at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 2004 (which happened to be my first year there, and theirs as well!). Such a perfect choice for the moment. (And even more perfect, as I was wearing a sweatshirt with “Canada” emblazoned across the front!)
When it came time for the Amida, the heart of the prayer service, Mom and I both stood for silent prayer. She sat after a few moments, as most people do when we’re at shul, but I decided to take this moment in the privacy of my home to check in with God, to ask for our good health — and our good senses — to prevail.
In that exceptionally quiet space, with no one else around except Mom, I felt a surge of emotion – some fear, some anxiety. Are we going to be okay, I asked? And as soon as the thought escaped, I knew – dare I say, heard – that we will find our way. There are enough smart and talented people on this planet to beat back this virus. I felt assured – a voice in me said clearly that though it may be hard, we will be okay.
“Judaism was made for this moment.” It was the perfect opening line of the rabbi’s unscripted sermon that came next, effortlessly and lyrically bringing us back together. I thought the following words might be about the practice of Judaism in the home, but instead, he talked about how our religion (most religions, really) offers us a sense of certainty in moments of uncertainty… how the stories of our past remind us that time and time again, against hardship, against all odds, we prevail. We go on.
When we came to the Red Sea, we didn’t know how we would get through. But eventually we gathered on the other side of the sea and “sang a song of redemption.” Hang in there, we tell ourselves… just hang in there.
The rabbi also suggested that the timing of this communal ‘experience of the unknown’ is perfectly placed between Purim and Passover, two holidays that share one of the most common themes in Jewish history: when faced with adversity, which we have often been, we always manage to prevail. Some say it’s been with the help of God – I’m not so sure about that, personally — but for sure, it’s always with the help of each other. Stories like those of Purim and Pesach always present a “bad” guy – a Haman or Pharaoh – who makes life hard for us. But the stories also always give us some “good” everyday folk like Mordechai and Miriam, the ones who step up and make a huge difference for others. That’s you and me. That’s our job.
This is a moment unlike any we have faced in our lives. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how the coming days are going to unfold, but we do know things will probably get worse before they get better. Our faith teaches us that together, we will find our way to redemption, to the other side of the uncrossable sea. I’m reminded too of the core premise of “The Secret” and other modern teachings: that is, thoughts become things. We have the collective power to come through this, and we will. But we must act together. With one voice.
So this service-at-home thing was encouraging to me. It reminded me that spirituality really can be in my home. And it showed me something even more amazing – that I actually know how to watch livestream on my TV. Miracles never cease.