Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa, from Kfar Hananya, said “When ten people sit together, immersed in Torah, the Divine presence is steeped in their midst, as it says in Psalms (82:1), ‘God stands in the assembly of God.’” Pirkei Avot 3:6
A few weeks ago, we made the decision to begin taking the Torah out of the ark again. For the ﬁrst time in about ﬁfteen months, I stood in awe as we began the Torah service and opened the ark, revealing the brilliance of lighting reﬂecting off the freshly polished and repaired Torah adornments. As a rabbi, I’ve held a Torah on my own at various points this past year. But standing in the community, honouring the Torah as part of a Shabbat service, was incredibly moving – my eyes welled up on account of this religious beauty, which we have missed for far too long. All these emotions were compounded by hearing the weekly Parsha read not out of a Chumash, but from the Torah itself.
We’ve now been taking out and reading from the Torah for several weeks, and it’s just as beautiful as it was that ﬁrst time. Each week, I know that for so many people present at the service, it is in fact their ﬁrst time seeing the Torah since before the pandemic struck. Of course, I wish more of you could have this experience right away, but we are still limited in service attendance due to lockdown measures. That being said, it will be that much more welcome when we do reopen fully, come 19 July.
Virtually all of my colleagues have been discussing lately what they think synagogue life will look like after the pandemic restrictions lift. Many worry that their congregants have become used to praying at home, and therefore will have less of a reason to return to in-person services. I can’t help but think they are mistaken. Yes, many people attend services in person for the prayer experience itself, but I believe most of us come to synagogue to be moved (emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually) and to connect (with others, ourselves, and the Divine). You can certainly have some of these needs met online or at home, but the most important needs – being moved spiritually and connecting to others – simply can’t be replicated elsewhere in the same way.
For a couple of months now, we’ve been able to gather with friends in our gardens, at a park, or elsewhere outdoors, but there’s a difference between seeing a few select people and seeing your larger community. There are plenty of people we may not think to call or visit on our own, but we are quite glad when we have a chance to see them at synagogue and hear what has been happening with them. Such encounters remind us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, our families, and our circle of friends: we are part of a loving and supportive community. And it’s the sense of belonging which has been at the heart of the Belsize experience since our community’s founding.
I want to invite you to join us for services in person as soon as you are able and feel comfortable doing so. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you’ve missed the experience of celebrating our heritage with others. And when you ﬁnd yourself feeling moved by the experience, I want you to try to hold on to the feeling – as we should never take such everyday blessings for granted again.
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick