With the warmth that is emanating from the formal celebration of my Bar Mitzvah still less than a month old, I was able to have another truly meaningful experience this Shabbat. As you have probably gathered based upon the name of this website, I live in Upstate New York. I have heard many arguments regarding what exactly constitutes the “true” upstate, but I think it is very safe to say that this is not Westchester or the Catskills. I am at the Southern tip of the Adirondack Park, and we certainly get our share of snow. Please see the above map for a jumping off-point for disagreement about what the “Capital District” actually entails. I digress. Snow and ice mean dangerous travel conditions. This is simply a reality of upstate living.
Throughout Friday (from about 7:30 to 4:00) I was giving an 8-hour-long Mental Health First Aid training, and I noticed that the weather was starting to get a bit cranky. As the snow continued to pour throughout the day, I continued to talk about how to assist someone who is having a mental health crisis to a group of eager trainees. The training was going very well, but the weather was still in a bad mood. Sometime around 2:30 in the afternoon, while giving a discussion about early intervention and substance use disorders, I got a text from our Temple Administrator asking me if I would be able to run the evening service. The Rabbi lives a bit down the highway, and conditions were certainly treacherous. I immediately agreed, and continued on with the training until 4 PM. I had so recently been up on the bimah for my Bar Mitzvah, and have come up for Aliyot, readings, etc. I figured I could at least get everyone through the service in a respectable manner.
Since my days as a trainer are generally very busy and filled with minutiae, I did not have much time at all to make myself anxious about the prospect of leading a Shabbat evening service. I always read the weekly Torah Portion, so I felt that I could grab a few ideas for a quick Drasha from the Internet. I felt a sense of honor as I carefully dressed in my suit for the night, and I calmly packed my tallit and bag, some water, and my Shabbat Siddur in my New York Jets drawstring sack. All comments about the failures of the New York Jets can be saved for another time.
When I got to the Temple, I made sure that everything for the service was in order. I turned on all of the lights, made sure the Shabbat candles were in place for lighting, switched on the sound system, and secured my kippah on my noggin. The weather was not pleasant, so I figured few people would show up, maybe not even enough for a minyan. Surprisingly, as the hour inched closer to 7:00, people began to trickle in, and we had quite a nice-sized group. At about 5 minutes to 7:00, I entered the sanctuary, quietly said the appropriate prayer, and put my tallit over my shoulders. I was happy to be able to wear it again so soon. We feel like good friends now.
The service began, and as I led the prayers and readings that I have become so familiar with, I started to feel a different sensation than I generally do when I am in the pews of the Temple. For some reason, forms of energy from the congregants felt palpable to me. Our Siddur tells us that each of us comes into the sanctuary with different needs. How very true that insight felt to me while up on the Bimah. While praying as a congregation is always very powerful, there is still something quite personal to the experience when seated among others. As the prayer leader, the energies almost felt like beams of light that were multi-colored and shining on me from multiple sources. I felt a sense of deep peace and calm that was disparate from the usual.
When it came time for the short Drasha, I never looked at what I had printed out off of the Internet. I was simply too engulfed in the moment, and I went with my soul. I thought about my mental health training that day, and I was able to connect the Parshah with mental health stigma, families, and the fact that no one is simply one dimensional. We are not archetypes. I talked about looking at the underlying causes of what presents as big behaviors or personality traits, and how strife generally stems from gross miscommunication. Honestly, this is a poor summary. I absolutely felt what I said, and it was a simple extension of how prayerful my existence was in the moment.
Before I knew it, it was time for the Aleinu and Mourner’s Kaddish. After saying Kiddush and the Motzi over the Challah, my night as prayer leader was over. I casually made my way back into the sanctuary while others noshed at the oneg, and I sat for a moment in a seat on the Bimah where I had set my tallit bag down. I deeply exhaled, grateful that I was able to experience this night in such a special way. I carefully folded my tallit, and put it back into my drawstring sack.
Honor, duty, gratitude…There are so many adjectives, and a lot of them could be used to describe my night as the prayer leader. I can only hope that I did Rabbi Norm proud as a fill-in, and while I am a long way off from being or becoming a Rabbi, I definitely understand the appeal to the soul. What an indescribable experience that I just tried to describe. That seems to be a fairly common theme.