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The power of praying en masse

I clearly remember the most powerful time I led a congregation in prayer. It was in the thick of the Second Intifada in 2002, and the South African Rabbinical Association, along with the chief rabbi, had called for a mass meeting of the community. This took place during Chol Hamoed Pesach, in the wake of the gruesome attack on participants at a seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, which left 30 dead and 140 wounded, some grievously so.

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Religion

RABBI YOSSI CHAIKIN

The venue chosen for this was the Oxford Synagogue, where I have the privilege of serving as rabbi, the largest sanctuary in our country (and if I’m not mistaken, the southern hemisphere). Yet, even the shul’s 1 600 pews proved insufficient to seat the thousands who arrived in solidarity and with the intent of storming the heavens in response to these horrors. The aisles of the shul were filled with standing room only worshippers, and more flowed into the passages. The adjoining Simon Kuper Hall had been set up with speakers so that those unable to get inside would be able to participate. I later found out that hundreds more joined via a hastily installed sound hook-up as well.

The service began with Maariv, which I had the privilege of leading. As I intoned the words “barchu et Hashem” (praise Hashem) the resounding response of the congregation was a powerful, thousand-strong “baruch Hashem” (blessed is Hashem). I had goose bumps, and the feeling was shared by the entire congregation, moved by the power of the massed multitudes.

This time of year, conversations in the Jewish community revolve around which shuls we frequent, and when congregants intend patronising their respective houses of worship. Will it be just on Yom Kippur, or perhaps the first day of Rosh Hashanah as well. An indignant, more religious participant in the discussion will preach the necessity of being at shul for all the high holiday services.

In probability, somebody will then challenge the need to go to shul at all, arguing that one can daven just the same at home and that, in a sense, it’s easier to do so with much less distraction and greater piece of mind. Then, there are those who “don’t do crowds”, generally shunning mass events because of a reclusive personality or genuine agoraphobia.

Is it really so important to daven in shul? Can G-d not be reached everywhere?

To answer these questions, we need to take a step back. What, in fact, is prayer? It’s an acknowledgement that Hashem is the source of all blessing, and that it’s to Him that we turn in times of need. While it’s true that He hears our entreaties from everywhere, the response to our request is far more likely to be positive if made as a community. Simply put, He hears the individual’s plea, but may answer “no”. However, a communal plea is not so easily rejected.

Furthermore, the mere presence of a minyan (prayer quorum of ten men), or more, gathered in one place brings down the divine presence (shechina). We are all familiar with the halacha that some sections of our siddur are recited only within the quorum of ten. But the larger the gathering, the greater the level of shechina attained.

Thus, when three or more have broken bread together, grace after meals is preceded by a formal zimun (invitation), with the leader suggesting to his meal mates, “Nevarech sheachalnu misehlo,” (“Let us bless our G-d, He of whose we have eaten.”) But If 10 or more have gathered, the zimun formula is upgraded to include Hashem’s name – “Nevarech l’Elokeinu”. Less known is the minority opinion of Reb Yose the Galilean, which states that the zimun is further enhanced after meals eaten by a gathering of 100, 1 000, or 10 000. In the latter case, the invitation is made, “Let us bless G-d, our G-d, G-d of Israel, G-d of the legions, who dwells above the keruvim [angels] for the food that we have eaten.” Although this isn’t accepted practice, his principle remains valid: the more souls gathered in one place, the more shechina is perceived. It may explain and even validate why many habitual shtiebel (small shul) dwellers choose to attend a larger synagogue for the yamim tovim.

While the peace and quiet of one’s own home might feel appropriate, there remains an inherent sanctity in a dedicated house of prayer. During designated services, the aura in a shul lends itself to better liturgical expression, particularly when led by the melodious voice of a good chazan, accompanied by a choir, and interspersed with meaningful sermons by a capable orator.

But a Beit Knesset remains holy even when no actual service is taking place. On occasion, I have entered Oxford’s magnificent main shul for a private prayer of my own, to encounter other pop-in visitors who were there to talk to Him briefly in His home.

One Yom Kippur, a few years ago, towards the end of Neila, I noticed a visitor standing in the passage, holding the door slightly ajar but not coming in. I approached him to invite him to join us, but he refused, claiming that he was unworthy of the privilege of being inside a holy sanctuary on the holy day. He had merely come to remain on the outskirts of the shul, to be near the house of G‑d, and to hear the sound of the shofar at the conclusion of the holiest of all days.

Shana tova, and remember to visit the one who inscribes us in the Book of Life in one of His many homes over the upcoming yomim tovim. There is one near you.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi of Oxford Shul, and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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Religion

Why we refuse to forget

Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

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Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.

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Religion

Strength in diversity

The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

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Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul

Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.

The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”

The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.

In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.

The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.

And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.

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Religion

Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health

There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)

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Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy

The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?

The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.

What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?

Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.

Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.

Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.

In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.

Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.

The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.

Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.

Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.

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