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Rituals of Return

My return to sacred space.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we learn that a woman who has recently given birth to a boy is prohibited from entering the sanctuary for 40 days — and that twice that long if she gives birth to a girl. 

What did it feel like to be excluded for so many weeks? I don’t know. But I have a hunch I know how it may have felt for the excluded woman to feel welcome again. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, those of us who are regular synagogue goers learned what it was like to be unwelcome in sacred Jewish spaces. Like the woman who has given birth, we were excluded, no matter if we needed a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish or if our child had spent months preparing to be called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. Most of us eventually found alternatives, like outdoor prayer or online worship. We made do because we had to, especially when there was no vaccine and we were terrified about contracting a deadly disease that was still bewildering doctors.

Early on, I was shocked when there were deaths in my community and only the rabbi and maybe the next of kin gathered at the gravesite. Watching these burials broadcast on Zoom felt like watching a science fiction movie about what the world would look like without the comfort of presence.

Initially, I had a hard time getting used to using technology on Shabbat morning to “go” to services. But it’s human nature to get used to new things. Soon enough, I was spending Shabbat mornings barefoot on my couch in my yoga clothes, a mug of coffee and my laptop on the table live streaming services. My husband, wearing a blanket over his tallit on cold days, was seated across from me, perched on the rocking chair. It was quite the look. 

At first, I stood when the ark was open and the Torah was taken out, but it felt weird to rise facing an image on a screen. When the weather got nice, I left the living room and went outside to wander in my garden when the rabbi gave us leave to silently recite the Amidah prayer. I confess: If I became mesmerized by stalks of asparagus popping up or distracted by neighbors stopping to photograph our oddly lush redbud tree, I risked forgetting to return to services. 

In those early days, I would often switch to a different livestream if a bar or bat mitzvah kid was praying or reading the Torah in a voice that was just too hard to listen to. Likewise if a rabbi’s sermon didn’t catch my attention. And then I found B’nai Jeshurun, one New York synagogue with extraordinary rabbis and a cantor. Soulful prayer and deep thinking;  was beautiful. I would plop on the couch and call out to my husband, “We’re going to shul now!” I listened to all the bar and bat mitzvah kids I didn’t even know and cried along with the rabbi when she blessed them.

As the pandemic eased, I was no longer sure I would ever leave my couch and go back to my little synagogue. Few who take turns leading services can actually sing. Sermons, given by anyone in the community who signs up to deliver one, tend to go on and on. I preferred my pandemic Shabbat ritual.

Then one day, I found myself back at my local synagogue for a Passover morning service, the one where you say Yizkor, the prayer for remembering loved ones who have died. It was the first time I would be saying Yizkor after my mother’s death. Maybe that’s what propelled me off my couch and into real synagogue clothes (shoes too). I wore the most powerful doctor-approved mask I could find on Amazon. 

I spent much of that service missing the exquisite musical experience of B’nai Jeshurun worship which, without fail, could lift my spirits or take me to a deep contemplative place. There were barely ten worshipers in the small chapel of our synagogue, and we were creaking and croaking our way through the service, as we do. The part of Yizkor when you say the mourner’s prayer came and went. It felt so heavy. So hard.

Then I felt the warmth and gentle pressure of an arm around my shoulder. My shul friend Emily, who knew my mother, had come to stand next to me. “Vanessa,” she said, “that must have been very hard.”

In Leviticus, the re-entry of a woman who has given birth is marked by a ritual: She meets the priest at the Tent of Meeting and brings him two live animals for sacrifice. It is the priest who makes expiation for her. Her return to spiritual purity and to the community’s sacred space comes vicariously. 

Emily’s non-virtual presence, her touch, her words — that, and not a lamb, pigeon or turtle dove barbequed at the Tent of Meeting by a priestly chef — was what constituted my ritual of return to Jewish sacred space. Because of Emily, I remembered how much we needed each other to pray.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on April 13, 2024. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here. 

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