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A Rabbi’s Confession: What I Discovered by Not Going to Shul

November 11, 2020 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

I prayed and learned Torah at home, but there was no way I could replace the communal aspect that only a synagogue supplies.

Who would believe that I would admit to this publicly?

Praying is an essential part of my life. I’ve always been profoundly moved by the beautiful explanation given by rabbinic commentators as reason for why we pray three times a day: If our bodies need the physical nourishment of breakfast, lunch and dinner for a healthy lifestyle then our souls similarly require the spiritual sustenance of Shacharit, Minchah and Ma’ariv. Going to shul is not just a mitzvah, it’s almost a medical requirement.

And yet with just a very few rare exceptions on the High Holy Days – made possible by outdoor prayer on a temporarily closed for traffic city street- I haven’t been able to pray in a synagogue since the start of the global pandemic. For the longest time the local shuls were shut down by city edict. When they finally were permitted to reopen with strict guidelines for number of attendees, age restrictions for the elderly as well as my own doctor’s orders have forced me to continue my personal spiritual quarantine.

So it is now more than half a year that I haven’t been able to talk to God in the sanctity of my otherwise “second home” – a synagogue that allows me to feel kinship not only with the Almighty but with my fellow community of Jews as well.

This period of personal deprivation has taught me a crucial lesson about the blessing of synagogue life. In Jewish tradition a synagogue is known by three different Hebrew names. It is commonly called a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer. Others frequently prefer to refer to it as a Beit Midrash – a house of study. Finally, and perhaps most often, it is known as a Beit Ha-Knesset, a house of communal gathering.

The three names emphasize the three different purposes of the place Jewish genius created to serve as substitute for the holy Temple after its destruction. A synagogue, the Talmud tells us, is a mikdash me’at – a mini sanctuary and perhaps more than anything else it was historically responsible for the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Each of the three Hebrew names for a synagogue emphasizes a different important aspect.

Yet each of the Hebrew names for a synagogue emphasizes a different important aspect. Obviously, prayer is one of them. Of course it should be called a Beit Tefillah, a House of Prayer. Yet, a synagogue without an emphasis on the study of Torah surely lacks a crucial component. It was Rabbi Kook who famously said that the difference between prayer and Torah is that in prayer man speaks to God and in Torah God speaks to man. The synagogue needs to emphasize both of these conversations and its Hebrew name can certainly reflect one or the other.

But the third name, Beit Ha-Knesset, a house of communal gathering, focuses on a different dimension of synagogue life: community. A synagogue is other people. A synagogue is friendship. A synagogue is sharing in the lives of others. It allows for communal celebrations of joy, commemorations of achievements, exchanging of Mazel Tovs. It makes possible offering condolences, helping others get through times of grief and of sorrows, showing other people with a hug or a handshake that they are not alone.

Yes, we are permitted to pray by ourselves, but it is not ideal. Prayer should take place with a minyan – at least nine other people. As a Hasidic rabbi beautifully put it, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” In the United States, a recent issue of Psychology Today tells us, loneliness is currently at epidemic levels. A recent Cigna study of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of Americans feel like they are alone. There is no doubt that loneliness is on the rise. And it affects people of all ages. A survey by AARP, showed that more than 42 million U.S. adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.

In the Torah, after reading of the creation of mankind, the Torah tells us, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). A beautiful rabbinic commentary I once heard on this verse is that it is meant to be an addendum to the previous seven times when God, evaluating His acts of creation, uttered His conclusion that “it is good.” Yes, the world and all that God brought into being “is good”, but that is only on one condition. It is good when it is shared. It is beautiful when it is not viewed in isolation. “Lo tov” – it is not good when we are alone, separated from any sense of communal life, estranged from others and condemned to what criminologists recognize as the cruelest form of punishment – solitary confinement.

A synagogue is primarily referred to as a Beit Ha-Knesset. It is where loneliness is exchanged for community, isolation is transformed into the holiness not only of prayer and of Torah study but also of friendship, of shared values, and – yes – even of the kiddush at the end of the services.

Life when not shared with others is unbearably desolate. And frankly, I'm lonely.

So here's my confession. I survived seven months without being in shul. But while I sorely missed my House of Prayer, I prayed at home and still found a great deal of spiritual connection with God. I did not hear the reading of the Torah in a Beit Midrash – but I managed to learn quite a bit on my own with the Torah commentaries in my personal library. But the one thing I could not replace was the Beit Ha-Knesset.

Now I truly understand why Beit Ha-Knesset remains the most universal way people refer to a shul. Life when not shared with others is unbearably desolate; none of us can be truly human in isolation. Our service of God requires that we relate to other people. Frankly, I’m lonely.

And when the day will come, please God in the very near future, when the plague will be but a bitter memory, I will treasure as never before the blessings of community, friendship, and of togetherness that only a Beit Ha-Knesset can provide.

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