Transforming A Family Shabbat During The COVID-19 Pandemic
by Dorit Sasson
Gathering a physical minyan isn’t easy in a COVID-19 era. But God’s presence is everywhere even when we can’t gather in-person. I have always relied on the physical to anchor in the spiritual. This past Shabbat was an opportunity to rise to the challenge – to pray without feeling isolated.
We soaked up the beauty of our candles on Friday night, which reminded me of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and how he encouraged Jews to transform their homes into spiritual sanctuaries or “Mikdash M’at.” He recommended praying and reading the Torah similar to our synagogue’s regular times. I tried not to think of the awkward feeling of sitting around the table reading and praying instead of at our synagogue.
I would not start this first bewildering Shabbat alone that begins Parasha Vayak’hel-Pekudei in the book of Exodus. For what would be the one and only time my husband would not be alone, unable to pray in a minyan even under quarantine. Surprisingly, there was a way.
Fifteen minutes after candle lighting, our four intersecting backyards suddenly became filled with almost ten men and Bar-Mitzvah aged boys including my son and husband. Imagine a physical minyan with each person six feet apart! To ensure the fulfillment of this mitzvah, my daughter and I ran to the neighbor to call over her sons. You’d think by now I’d feel doomed by this social distancing, but never before was I bent on making sure this physical minyan would happen. Never before has the emphasis on the individual become so important.
Minutes later on my porch, I joined in to sing Licha Dodi, the sweet song to welcome the Sabbath bride. My daughter who was watching birds in our garden followed along with me.
Baby steps. One step at a time. You can do this. You’ve always done hard things.
Under a starry night, my husband bellows the words of mourner’s kaddish just he would do at our synagogue. He would tell me only a week later that he was asked by our neighbor to lead in the kaddish so he could pray for the entire Jewish world. I got chills, Dorit, when he asked me to do that. Imagine that.
It was no accident this moment happened at the same time as the message of this Shabbat’s particular Parasha: how Moses assembles the people of Israel and emphasizes the commandment of observing the Shabbat. He then conveys God’s instructions regarding the establishment of the Mishkan, the temporary Temple that accompanied the Jewish nation until the permanent Temple was established on Temple Mount. They were the Jewish nation’s spiritual center.
This particular Parasha is also filled with details about how the Mishkan, a dwelling place for God should be built. Since we don’t have Mishkan to build, I interpreted these instructions differently: build and elevate our spiritual Mishkan to strengthen the bond with my family.
Where it talks about the length and dimension of how to build the Mishkan, I spend one hour praying with kids. My six-year-old and I read each prayer slowly, her tiny fingers following the words. It would take us nearly one hour to get to the finish line. My husband and son waited for us like cars on a highway. I learned a valuable lesson: connect to God at your own rhythm, pace.
Where it talks about the Mishkan’s establishment or Vayakhel, from the word for gathering and union, I was able to take comfort in the notion of all our children as unified and together around the dining room table, even though they tested our patience. When this typically happens at our synagogue, we encourage them to play with other kids. I tried keeping in mind the message of unconditional love. At the beginning of the 20th century, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Israel wrote, “If we were destroyed, and the world was destroyed along with us, because of baseless hatred, we will be rebuilt, and the world will be rebuilt along with us, by unconditional love” (Orot Hakodesh 3, pg. 324). With the right mindset, we were able to bring each other closer and prevent a potential fight.
But this particular Shabbat would precede Shabbat Mevorchim, a new Hebrew month and yet, the day dragged on. There was no playground and the weather wasn’t suitable for a short walk. Still tasked with creating our spiritual Mishkan after leaving our dining room table – we kept as much of the Shabbat as we could – individually and collectively. Under a canopy of birdsong, I read as many psalms as possible. I played card games with my kids. And we ate some more, laughed and played hide-and-seek.
If anything, I discovered a super gift of Shabbat from this unusual set of circumstances we find ourselves in these days. In quarantine, you can take all the time you need to build a spiritual Mishkan and not just on Shabbat – through donating your time and gifts. You have nowhere to go. And since God’s presence is everywhere, why not tap into it at any time?
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