You may know that back in the Old Country, rabbis would only give sermons twice a year: on Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Shabbat haGadol, right before Pesaḥ. (You know who likes to cite this fact frequently? Cantors, who are always hopeful that the rabbi will talk less.)
I think the reason, historically, was that those were times in which the rabbis felt the need to remind their congregations of the important halakhic details surrounding Yom Kippur and Pesaḥ, so they lectured them on the intricacies of fasting and repenting, on ḥametz and matzah and purifying our homes and our lives, and so forth.
So one reason this day is called Shabbat haGadol, which you might translate as “the Big Shabbat,” is that services historically took longer, since the rabbi would be talking extensively about kashering your pots and pans, burning and selling ḥametz, and so forth.
On this Big Shabbat, as we emerge cautiously after two years of pandemic, we have to remember to think big, that is, to think in terms of community, rather than as individuals.
My daughter, who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah here in the depths of the pandemic in August 2020 with a few more than a minyan of close relatives in the room, recently told me something that was particularly striking. She sings with the Pittsburgh chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. If you are not familiar with HaZamir, you should know that there are 25 chapters in cities across the United States, and eight chapters in Israel, and every spring they gather in New York to perform together – hundreds of American and Israeli teens on stage at Lincoln Center. It is powerful and moving; many young members of Beth Shalom have sung with HaZamir over the years.
But that concert is only the part that is visible to the public. On the day before the concert, that is, on Shabbat, the participants organize and attend their own services. Now, imagine if you will that you have a population of 400 Jewishly-knowledgeable high school students, who are all talented singers, and you ask them to create Shabbat services? The result, which I have not personally experienced, but my daughter did two weeks ago, is something wonderful. She described it as restoring her faith in the idea of Am Yisrael Ḥai: The people of Israel lives!
I was kind of struck dumb by this remark. All of the investment in her Jewish upbringing – the day school tuition, the bat mitzvah prep, the summers at Camp Ramah, USY conventions, Shabbat and Yom Tov services here at Beth Shalom week after week – and the thing that gives her hope for the Jewish future is an annual Jewish choir convention in New York. I frankly did NOT see that coming.
But it speaks to the idea of thinking big. That is, thinking about community. What made that Shabbat work was the instant-community feel of it: a whole bunch of teens brought together for a particular purpose, thinking not only of themselves, but rather of the entire gathering, of the whole group together.
And you know what? We can think big right here in Pittsburgh. We do not have to head out to Lincoln Center to find community.
On the contrary: we have it right here. And this is not an instant community; it is fashioned from a group of people who have been convening under the banner of Congregation Beth Shalom for more than a century.
But there is an urgency right now to our being able to think big.
While it is true that the pandemic is not over, we are thankfully in a lull in terms of new infections and hospitalizations. We are now mask-optional here in the building, except for our youngest congregants (with the innovation this week of a mask-required section here in the Sanctuary).
And looming larger in our midst is the challenge right now of returning to one of the basic principles in Jewish life, that our tefillot, our religious services, take place in person. That is, they require physical proximity, in order to constitute a minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish people.
Before I get to how we get there, just a quick review of how we got here.
As you may know, 9 or fewer people praying together are considered individuals, and there are certain parts of the service which may not be performed unless there are at least 10 people present. Those items include reading Torah, reciting the Barekhu, the repetition of the Amidah including the Qedushah, and any form of the Qaddish, including Mourners’ Qaddish. Prior to March 15, 2020, we held fast to the halakhic principle that those people must be in the room.
As the world was shutting down 25 long months ago, we moved our services almost entirely on-line. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a teshuvah, a rabbinic response to a halakhic quandary, that in certain circumstances people who are not in the same building but within sight and hearing of the service may be counted in the minyan.
Our new electronic tools have made this possible from a much greater distance than the ancient rabbis of the Talmud could have possibly envisioned. In his teshuvah, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller suggested that we apply a hora’at sha’ah, a temporary measure that would apply in this she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation brought on by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic. This enabled us to constitute a minyan via Zoom, when we were not in each other’s physical presence, but rather in “virtual” presence, and therefore able to complete our daily tefillot in the usual way.
Prior to two years ago, the Conservative movement did NOT allow this, and we at Beth Shalom would not have accepted a laptop and screens sitting in the middle of the Samuel and Minnie Hyman Sanctuary. But considering the she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation, we changed one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life. And for many of us, this was an essential lifeline for the last two years. Many of us were stuck at home for much of that time, with few opportunities to connect with others. Indeed, weekday service attendance over the last two years has actually been higher at times than pre-pandemic, and we have never failed to make a minyan.
But, ḥevreh, it is now time to return to where we were before the pandemic. And now is the time to think big: to think beyond ourselves as individuals. To consider the greater needs of this community.
What is the most important part of tefillah, of prayer? Is it fulfilling the mitzvah, the holy opportunity that our people have been practicing for thousands of years? Is it reciting the Shema and the Amidah, the two fundamental building blocks of Jewish services? Is it hearing the Torah read and interpreting it? Is it enabling folks to recite Mourners’ Qaddish?
While all of those things are essential to Jewish life and the keys to our ongoing existence and flourishing, the most important aspect to tefillah is the gathering. It is the banter before, the schmoozing after, the human contact that takes place as we come from our separate directions to form a minyan, interact, even if only briefly, and go our separate ways again.
We need to be around each other, in person. We need to see each other’s faces, to hear each other’s voices in their full, resonant glory, uncompressed by Internet transmission technology. We need to be present for one another, in moments of grief and celebration, pain and joy.
And that is why our Religious Services Committee has set a date: Monday, May 2, three weeks from now. On that morning, we will start serving breakfast after morning minyan once again, as we always used to do (thanks to Dee Selekman and her team of assistants), and both morning and night we will expect that the minyan will have to be 10 people, in person, in the room.
Yes, I know that means you have to leave your home and #ComeBacktoShul in order for us to make a minyan. Yes, we will continue to offer our services via Zoom, but that some of our regular Zoom participants who are in other states and even in other countries will not count toward the minyan. Yes, there are people for whom it is still not safe to come into the building, and that is surely a consideration.
But we have to think big. We have to think not just about ourselves as individuals, but the greater good as a qehillah qedoshah, a community founded in holiness. And this principle is one which we should not relinquish.
You may know that there are already synagogues which have entered the so-called “metaverse.” While I admire their willingness to be ahead of the curve, I must emphasize that a synagogue is a fundamentally local institution. I am fairly confident that whatever Mark Zuckerberg creates and however impressive the technology, we are going to need in-person interaction unmediated by Reb Zuckerberg and his platforms. We need to be together.
On this Shabbat haGadol, this Big Shabbat, it is time for us to acknowledge the urgency of restoring this crucial aspect of Jewish life.
And let’s face it: there may be some nights we won’t make a minyan. We have the GroupMe app to help summon others if necessary. But here is where you come in: help us out. Pick one night a week, or one night a month, to help us support one another by being in minyan, in communal relationship together. Think big! Show up.
חג שמח! Ḥag Sameaḥ! May we all have a joyous Passover festival, marked by gathering and community and good discussions around the seder table.