By Rabbi Yossi Lipsker
y now, everyone knows that the shuls/synagogues are closed. This might be a good a time as ever to acquaint ourselves with the overarching hierarchy of values as it pertains to praying alone at home versus praying communally at shul.
At first glance, our tradition leans heavily in favor of communal prayer. The “proof texts” requiring 10 men for a minyan are far-ranging. Biblically, the story of the spies in the Book of Numbers serves as one of the key sources. When the spies return from scouting out the land of Israel, 10 out 12 of them share a negative report. G-d isn’t happy and isn’t shy about it, either: “How much longer must I endure this evil congregation.” Since he is excluding Caleb and Joshua from this crowd, he labels the other 10 a congregation (albeit an evil one), and the precedent for a minyan was established.
A somewhat less ironic source can be found earlier in Genesis, in the story of the destruction of Sodom. Abraham is “negotiating” with G-d, trying to dissuade him by arguing against the unG-dly infliction of collateral damage. Why should innocent people suffer on account of their neighbors’ immoral behavior? “Will you stand down if I find 50 innocent people?” “Yes, says G-d.” “How about 40?” Yea … 30 …Uhuh… 20? Umm … fine … 10??? Yea, but not less! So there’s that.
The tilt in favor of group prayer is quite clear in the grammatical makeup of many of the prayers themselves. Much of the liturgical language favors the plural version of the personal pronoun “we” over “I,” as well as the plural object pronoun “us” over “me.”
A well-known example of this is in the High Holiday liturgy when we beat our chests in unison, it is “one for all and all for one” as we seek forgiveness for the “sins we have committed against you.” A less dramatic but equally significant example is the prayer for healing in the weekday Amidah recited thrice daily, asking G-d to “heal us, save us,” etc.
The group prayer experience more often than not simply feels better, because, it just feels good (most of the time) to be with others who are not merely co-worshippers, but more importantly, are also mishpacha, extended family! It’s not only good to pray with them, it feels great to just be with them!
Ironically, this is precisely where one can pivot to an argument in favor of private prayer; on the grounds of the potential lowering in degrees of seriousness inherent in any interactive social setting. One could understand the desire to forgo all the clear benefits of communal worship in favor of a solitude that fosters a different sort of meditative, often trancelike experience. In Chasidic parlance, one would call this “Davening Beyichidus,” literally translated as “Praying Alone.”
As of last week, these positions, while important to know, have become as irrelevant as the debate over whether it is preferable to pray in our local synagogue or inside the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans over 2,000 years ago (We are so fortunate to have access to the remaining Western Wall as today’s most sacred Jewish space, even if today we can’t pray there, either). The local synagogues that have been shut down are for all practical purposes no different than the Temple, in the sense that we can’t be in either of them. It would be the same in reverse if the Temple in Jerusalem was shuttered 2,000 years ago because of the dangers posed by the transmission of coronavirus, while Chabad of the North Shore was destroyed by the Romans last week.
So just as the Jewish community 2,000 years ago adapted to the new reality of a hiatus from the temple for an unknown period of time, we now face a new Jewish reality that requires us to pray alone for health reasons. It’s a hard adjustment. It’s a loss that cuts deep into an experience that is very meaningful to so many of us. On the other hand, it might be welcomed by those who have always wanted to pray alone.
I think the real take-home point is that in these circumstances, the adjustment of our spiritual practice is not a deviation from the norm. As long as it lasts, it has become the new norm.
Though the Jewish ethos of “pikuach nefesh” (loosely translated as prioritizing health over all and every religious consideration or the safeguarding of health) trumps the importance of Jewish practice, including in this case praying with/in close proximity to others, I am unaware of any legal precedents mandating that we change the plural centric liturgy to one that is more singular friendly as a nod to a different reality. The fact is that the language doesn’t change! Can this mean that the power of the community remains embedded in the liturgy? And if so, under these circumstances, does praying alone activate much if not all of the energy contained in a community worship setting?
Can it be that since we are all in this aloneness together, that sense of what we have lost can become an ode to what we might gain as well? Can the warm potency of the group, echoed in the unchanged plural liturgy, recited by an individual … alone, quarantined from his brothers, allude to the experiential Mizrach/East direction that we all can and must now face together? I’m thinking, yes! What do you think?
On a different note … I truly miss seeing each of you! I have begun to systematically reach out to every single person I know on the North Shore and beyond, mostly old school phone calls, just to check in and say hello and see how you are. Feel free to beat me to it!
Much love and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker is the founder of Chabad of the North Shore.