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The Ark — In Person

There is such joy in seeing a member of your community in person: having them articulate what has been painful and distressing about this era.
[additional-authors]
September 17, 2020

With the doors to the ark open, they came with their hearts open. They came with their unexpected tears and their whispered intimacies. They came, broken and battered by COVID-19 and wildfires and choking air and societal upheaval and crushing loneliness and financial worry. They came with the crevices of their souls exposed and they had a chance to place a prayer in the crevices of the Holy Ark.

When Temple Beth Am dedicated its new sanctuary in 2019, just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we had no idea how one spiritually whimsical design detail could become so important and profound in 2020. And with our sanctuary so full and robust last year, we could not anticipate how empty and lonely it (and its usual attendees) would be this year.

That one design detail was in our Aron Hakodesh. Its doors include an array of iridescent cubes. The sun’s rays stream in from the vast window on the east side of the room, refract through those cubes and create a subtly dazzling dappled light. When one is inside the ark and turns around to face the sanctuary, one can see the back of those cubes — hundreds of them. And many are perforated with small, tubular hollows.

Beth Am’s mini-Kotel, we mused, had enough space for notes to last several generations.

We intended that our ark would be a repository not only for God’s words but for our own. Not just holy writ but our writings. At the dedication last year, members wrote small prayers on special colored paper. They rolled the prayers around a dowel and inserted them into the cubes’ hollows. Beth Am’s mini-Kotel, we mused, had enough space for notes to last several generations.

 

The prediction was apt, but it did not account for the coronavirus. As the leadership thought through the worship options we would offer our community over these unique holidays (small, truncated services outdoors as well as “Zooms galore”), we also explored creative ways, borne out of this excruciating moment, to serve up tastes and feelings related to the High Holy Days.

One of those ideas was to invite family units to spend 15 minutes at and within the Holy Ark with one of our rabbis. The scene looked like a hybrid between a hockey penalty box and a Catholic confessional, with the rabbi in one “pen” behind a plexiglass screen and the family in a separate pen on the other side of the ark. Despite the masks, the physical distance, the plexiglass and the otherwise empty room, these moments have felt intimate, grand, full and pregnant with meaning. And prayer.

Virtual reality is impressive, but it is no replacement for human touch, for presence, for true closeness.

There is such joy in seeing a member of your community in person: having them articulate what has been painful and distressing about this era, yet challenging them to name one unexpected wonder they have found. Stepping back, so their whispered words are not audible and thus remain private, and inviting them to turn to one another to articulate any wish or feeling welling up inside them.

And then, we turn back to the mini-Kotel, watching as Jews — who are about to recite a litany of scripted prayers during the High Holy Days  — write out personal ones and place them within our ark.

Zoom is a wonder. Navigating COVID-19 — personally, professionally, educationally —without it is nigh impossible. But Zoom also has limitations in some ways by enslaving us even more powerfully to our screens. Zoom’s ubiquity and effectiveness is reinforcing to a young generation that the digital world is greater than the human world. It is not. Virtual reality is impressive, but it is no replacement for human touch, for presence, for true closeness.

On Kol Nidre, many communities recite a piyyut (liturgical poem) whose refrain is labrit habet, v’al tefen layetzer. We ask God to remember the covenant and not pay attention to our wayward urges. This year, I suggest we turn those words on ourselves. Let us not succumb to the urge that values the virtual over the personal. Rather, let us remember the covenant of humanity we share and recommit — both in creative ways while the pandemic rages and in all ways once it ebbs — to be together, because we need to be together more than we ever have before.

So much of human connection has been wrenched away from us. For all of the digital davening wonders we will deliver to our community as we celebrate 5781, perhaps nothing will be more important and needed than those 15 minutes by the ark.

And perhaps even some of those prayers in our mini-Kotel will be answered.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am. 

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