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The rush to return to our sanctuaries is misplaced

Last week, President Donald Trump called for churches, synagogues and mosques to reopen. In a press conference, the president said, “In America we need more prayer, not less.”

As a congregational rabbi, I can affirm that so many in my community are missing the ability to sing together, catch up in our hallways, hug people who have had losses and feel the support and power that only gathering provides.

We are all anxious to leave the wilderness and enter the holy land. So you might think we would jump at the opportunity to begin the process of reopening as soon as possible and, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced, follow the easing restrictions and allow 10 to pray in our sanctuary.

But what would it mean for us to send in those 10 in masks and gloves, socially distanced to scout out the land? What would be achieved in sending in the healthy, the able-bodied to do what the rest of us cannot?

One of the concerns God and Moses express at the end of the Torah is that once the people enter the land they will have forgotten all the yearning, the desire, the anticipation, the journey and focus instead on the conquering and the arrival.

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In the wilderness they held hands, counted each precious soul and stuck together, and when they entered the land, as the prophets explain, they turned holy space into personal space. How do we make sure that when we enter the land, to the extent possible, we do it together, not based on survival of the fittest but inclusion of the precious?

My teacher, Micah Goodman, once described holy space as somewhere you can’t go just because you want to. It’s why Moses took his shoes off when he saw the burning bush: because he was standing on holy ground. A holy place doesn’t belong to you. You can’t stick a flag in it and conquer it.

What makes it holy is that it is about so many things other than you. And holy things are happening in the vastness of this wilderness.

Demands on our local food pantry have increased exponentially and to manage the traffic, we have offered clients parking on our synagogue premises. I never thought I would say this, but right now our parking lot is holier than our sanctuary.

We have taken a census of our community to make sure that everyone is accounted for and in particular to make sure that senior members who are isolated have the technological ability to join our virtual services. We hadn’t seen one senior, Bob Miller, in weeks, and one day he finally logged on. Dissonant cheers erupted from boxes all over my computer screen. This past Saturday, Bob was able to see a young man and young woman chant prayers for their b’nei mitzvah.

Together, Bob and these young adults act as human bridges from one generation to another carrying the holy tabernacle in the wilderness. Bringing it forward through moments of physical space from temple to synagogue to moments of virtual space from Talmud to Zoom.

This is our community right now, and it is holy because we walk together and account for each other.

It was a joyful day for these young adults, but what made it sacred was when they set aside their personal celebrations to join us all in wishing Bob a happy 90th birthday.

Holy space is the place where we allow someone else, something else to be. It can happen in parking lots, on computer screens and sometimes, as much as we want it, it just can’t happen in sanctuaries.

Rabbi Aaron Brusso is the spiritual leader of Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, N.Y.


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