This Shabbos marks a momentous event in our community. We're returning to the Makom Kadosh - the transcendent space - of our Shul. Our tradition is replete with the significance of davening in shul and of davening with a minyan. And as I write this, anxious and excited, I cannot help but wonder why we are returning.
Of course, we would not be doing any of this without the advice and guidance of doctors and poskim. We could not do this without social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers. But Baruch HaShem we're doing it. Our return to shul, awkward as it is, will be a small measure of "returning to normal" in a world of uncertainty.
And that's my concern. I don't want to go back to normal. And if I may be so bold, I don't think that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to go back to normal either. Being honest, I'm worried that with the countless zooms, whatsapps, meetings, emails and sign-up-sheets, we have already forgotten why we want to come back to shul altogether.
Our parsha begins with the obligation of the Kohen to kindle the light of the Menora in the Mishkan. But Shlomo HaMelech writes in Mishlei (כ:כ״ז) that נר ה׳ נשמת אדם - Each of us possesses a soul, a candle of the Master of the Universe. Rebbe Nosson (ברכת השחר ה:ה) explains that the obligation of the Kohen to kindle that light every morning exists within each of us. We are supposed to be on fire for Torah and Tefillah. We are supposed to light up the darkness of bedrooms and boardrooms. We are supposed to bring the Light of Hashem into the world.
And we're supposed to do it together. That's called Tefillah B'zibur. And we have a headquarters for this universe-altering mission. That's a shul. (And of course, it's temporary, until we rebuilt our permanent home in Yerushalayim.)
I don't want to attend a shul where passion and excitement for collectively connecting with Hashem is replaced with "relief" and "normalcy." Important as our health guidelines are (and they really are!) this is all futile without deepening Ahavas Hashem and Yiras Shamyaim.
There's a story from over a century ago that highlights this concern:
New Yorkers might know about a small bridge that stretches between the Bronx and Manhattan. It is called the Spuyten Duyvel bridge. This bridge receives trains coming up from Westchester that cross it and ride down the Hudson to lower Manhattan. What is special about the bridge is that it is constantly opening and closing in order to allow ships, large and small, to circle Manhattan.
In 1904, a train was coming up from Westchester, wanting to cross the bridge. In those days, there would be a lantern swinger who stood at the bridge to let the train know if it could pass. When he heard the call of the train's whistle he would swing his lantern if the bridge was up. If the lantern was not swung, the conductor would understand that the bridge was down and safe for passage.
Early one Friday morning at about 3 a.m., a train crashed into the water. It was a serious accident, a great tragedy, and of course everyone wanted to know who was responsible. Suspicion naturally fell on the lantern swinger. After all, he was the one responsible for swinging his lantern if the bridge was up and could not be crossed. He, however, protested his innocence with such vigor that the case, which had in the meantime been brought to court, could not be decided.
After six months of hung juries, his lawyer in a dramatic break from courtroom practice at the time decided to call the lantern swinger to the stand.
"What is your name?" the bailiff asked. "Mr. Lantern Swinger," he responded with alacrity. "Where were you early on the Friday morning in question?" "At my post," he responded calmly. "Did you see the oncoming train?" "Yes I did." "Were you inebriated?""No sir, I never drink."
"Then tell the court what happened when you saw the oncoming train. Did you or didn't you swing your lantern?" A hush fell over the courtroom . . . Only the sound of baited breath and reporters' pencils were faintly heard. And strangely, strangely, the lantern swinger, who had been fully poised, began to stutter . . .
"Yyy . . . ye . . . yes. I d-d-d-did swing the lantern," he finally blurted out. Although the jury did not know what to make of his stutter, they believed him. He was acquitted. However, as the last person filed out of the courtroom, and the defense attorney was left alone with his client, he exploded.
"I've been defending you for six months!! I've worked day and night! I've barely seen my wife and kids. You told me you were innocent. Why the stutter of a guilty man?"
The lantern swinger looked sadly at his attorney. "You asked me the wrong question," he said. "You asked if I swung my lantern. You forgot to ask if the lantern was lit."
At its core, Yiddishkeit is a relationship, not a check list. We should not come to shul to swing a lantern. We should be there to kindle the flame.
Welcome back, and Good Shabbos