I don’t turn my back on the congregation very often, but when I do, it is in prayers like the Barechu or the Amidah. And when I am not facing you, I see the ark, crafted by a congregant, now of blessed memory. I see the woodwork, refinished and polished by volunteers last fall. And I see the walls, made to represent the Kotel, my favorite place in all of Jerusalem, a city where I lived for a year while in seminary, and where I met Rabbi Sara.
But since COVID-19 and the accompanying social distancing measures, we have been streaming services from our living room. Instead of seeing the ark when I turn in prayer, I see my bookcase. And of the many times I have cried since shifting our congregation from our building to homes, the tears that welled up when I looked at this bookcase for the first time, stuck with me.
It was not even the books themselves that caught my attention. Realizing we were turned from the microphone and that I would have to project, I thought back to another pulpit far away. I served for two years in a congregation whose building was well over 100 years old. The sound system (almost as old) did not include the ark. When I turned to face it, I had to speak loudly enough that my voice would carry throughout the cavernous sanctuary. I remember thinking that my voice was also embedding itself in the Torahs and the walls, along with the voices of my predecessors and teachers who occupied the pulpit before me.
And I looked at the shelf. I saw books that my wife and I had collected, books we read again and again. Others were gifts from family, teachers, and congregants. I saw whithered and decaying prayerbooks that belonged to my great grandparents. I saw all of these books and for a moment, felt like all of those people were with me. And then I wept.
I wept for a community that is now isolated. I wept for the people we have lost, both to this disease and for other reasons – how far I feel from everyone right now.
And I wept because I could not see my community. Turning my back does not usually mean I succumb to a sudden loss of object permanence – mostly because I can hear the prayers from behind me, as I try to speak slowly and keep us together. Now, I am still trying to keep us together. But I cannot hear them, I cannot see them, except, at best, across a computer screen. I cannot hold anyone’s hand. I cannot hug people – neither in joy nor in comfort.
What comforts me is that I can turn back. I turn again to face, if not the congregation, the iPad that connects us to them. And while I face the camera, trying hard to seem natural and at ease in a decidedly unnatural time of dis-ease, I hope that they are behind me. At the same time, I know for certain what is behind me: a bookshelf full of my past. A collection of pages and words and letters. A connection to my community.
Rabbi Benjamin Zober
Rabbi Sara Zober