Sunday, December 2, 2012

In praise of going to shul

Saying kaddish means going to shul a lot. Shul can be, and often is, boring. At least I find it such. The services are pretty much the same from day to day. Still I am, and remain, a shul goer, even after my kaddish year.

And why is that? Several reasons. First, I pray better at shul than I do at home. At home there are more distractions. I see my computer which reminds me of work I have to do. I see household objects from my day to day life. All this doesn't make for a spiritual atmosphere. (Praying at work, which I need to do every so often, is even more difficult.) Going to shul takes you out of your normal environment. You know you are going to shul to pray. Also, other people are there who are also praying, so your individual prayer is supported by others. I always find it moving when all the mumbling of prayer suddenly ceases and the room turns so quiet as the silent Amidah is recited. The powerful experiences I had while saying kaddish could never have happened had I prayed at home.

There are other reasons to go to shul: the Torah is read publicly and so you get more exposure to its words and messages. You get to see your friends and talk with them, see their kids and generally catch up with their lives. And you meet many different kinds of people that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. Your presence is also supporting mourners who are saying kaddish.

Finally, while shul is often quite routine, you never know what could happen. Every so often it's full of surprises. One time while I was in the middle of my kaddish year, none of the rabbis was at the Mincha/Ma'ariv service, so one of the regular congregants volunteered to give a D'var Torah between Mincha and Ma'ariv. This elderly gentleman ended up speaking about his father's experiences in World War I in Europe and the atrocities he witnessed during the German invasion of Belgium. Another time, again when no rabbinic staff was present, a retired rabbi spoke about his experiences studying under the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (otherwise known as "The Rav") and related stories about the incredible nervousness he and other rabbinic candidates experienced when they had to enter the room for their Simcha exam before the Rav. He remembered one candidate who literally passed out from anxiety.

Yesterday during the Shabbat Mincha service another event occurred in shul that I will never forget. An elderly man whom I've known for a while was called up for an Aliyah to the Torah. His son wheeled him up in a wheelchair. Before he recited the blessings for the Torah, the rabbi explained that he was observing the Yahrzeit of his mother. The 89th Yahrzeit! That's right, 89 years of marking the day of his mother's death. This man is 93 years old. His mother died when he was 4. I'd like to ask him if he actually remembers her. Even if I live to be 120, I wouldn't observe that many Yahrzeits. How moving that after all these years, his mother's memory (if that is even the right word) lives on within him.

As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach famously said, "you never know. You just never know."

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