I had an awesome experience in shul yesterday.
First, I was able to reconnect with some friends, which was wonderful. I know some really neat people whose lives, like mine, are so overfull that Shabbat is really the only time we can catch up. How cool that we have a day each week during which being together with others is a Good Thing, when we don’t have to cut our conversations short to run errands or answer the phone.
I’m frequently one of the last to leave the building on Shabbat afternoon, and there’s always a wistfulness when I leave. Yesterday, Oldest Son said, “I wish we could stay at shul forever!” Sometimes I can really relate. And other times I recognize that Thomas Mann had a point: there comes a time when we each must come down off of our magic mountain.
Funny, I always think of my “magic mountain” as Sinai. Do I really have to come down?
I wound up missing shacharit, which was okay because I was where I needed to be at the time, and as I tried to quickly and quietly take my place in the sanctuary at the beginning of the Torah service, I felt very self-conscious. I wasn’t the only one coming in late, but my usual place is right up in the front corner and there’s no easy way to sneak there.
As I’ve grown Jewishly, I also can no longer take the approach of “just jump right in” where the congregation is. No, I have to start at the beginning (more or less) and catch up.
For shacharit, this means standing. In front of everyone. While they’re sitting down. Fortunately, the setup of our shul sanctuary (based on the classic horseshoe shaped seating arrangement around a central bima of the old Eastern European shuls) meant that while I stood facing East, everyone else was behind me, so I didn’t need to see them.
At first I was tempted to just sit down and forego shacharit. It’s not unusual for people here and there to be davening “catch-up” after they arrive, and it’s a rare Shabbat when no one is doing so. Still, they aren’t me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to make such a visible stand (pun intended).
But davening meant that much to me, so I withdrew my attention from behind me and focused on the whole reason I was praying in the first place.
Then I delved into the Torah portion for the week.
Everything was good, though not extraordinary, until musaf.
I’ve written other times about needing That Connection, and it was true again this week. But I was feeling too distracted, too caught up in what was going on around me that I couldn’t focus on G-d. And so, throwing all social anxiety to the wind, I davened musaf with my tallit over my head.
Again, this isn’t so unusual at shul, but again, it’s unusual for me. I think the last time I did that it was a year or two ago on Yom Kippur.
With this blanket of white surrounding me, I gave myself over to the intention of the prayers. And with it came an image: a deep hole, something like a well. Dark, uncomfortable, too deep to climb out. I’m in it, feeling alone and powerless.
Then a kind of rope appears, shimmering with colors I can’t even identify. It’s extended toward me; all I need to do is reach out and grab hold.
It takes everything I have, as if I’m trying to climb out of the middle of a tar pit (or how I imagine climbing out of a tar pit would feel), but I reach, I grasp, I hang on for dear life.
Instantly I feel a rushing in my head, like a window has been opened and is airing out the dark dustiness of my brain. There is a surge of awareness, of being unquestionably not alone, of having been surrounded all this time but I couldn’t see or feel it.
It is the best feeling of home, of being accepted no matter what you’ve done or how long you’ve been gone. The absence of this in my life over the past few months is a visceral pain. It nearly brings me to tears and the part of me that remembers I’m in a very crowded synagogue fights the urge to jump into parts of High Holy Day liturgy, the vidui in particular.
Instead I settle for a silent “I’m so sorry,” supplemented by thoughts and feelings that belie words. The not alone feeling intensifies: supportive, compassionate, forgiving, intimate.
This does bring me to tears and my body is trembling as the shaliach tzibur transitions from musaf to the next step in the service. I lower my tallit and wipe my eyes and wonder if anyone notices. It wouldn’t bother me if they did. I’m not self-conscious now. This was too important to care if someone wanted to be critical.
The rest of the day I was relaxed, content. I wasn’t quite as wistful when I left the building since I knew that what I’d gained while inside was coming with me. The calm contentedness met me this morning and I threw the rest of my family for a loop when I davened this morning at home – something I haven’t done in several months.
I’ll admit to being somewhat irritated when my kids had back-to-back tantrums during breakfast, but I was quickly able to find the inner resources to move out of irritation and back into mindful parenting.
The future, as I write this, is full of potential joy rather than attacks from which I need to flee. Things will work out. (Of course, I say this prior to paying bills…) There are obstacles – what fun would life be without them? – but I can get through them because I’m not alone.
I have my lifeline. And corny as it sounds to say it, that makes all the difference.