The Loneliest Communal Prayer

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Last Sunday, I signed up online for a date with God.

We were to meet on Saturday morning at 9:30 in the synagogue parking lot. 39 other people would be there too—20 men and 20 women in all.

Friday night, I told my six-year-old son that I was going to shul the next morning. I haven’t been to shul since the middle of March. He started to cry. How could I go without him? He’s been so used to having me by his side. This time, however, young children were not welcome.

Shabbat morning, I donned a mask and arrived right on time. Chairs had been set up in marked squares eight feet apart. I didn’t greet anyone. No one greeted me. I took my place and opened my siddur. I’ve never seen a shul so quiet in my life. The only sounds were the muffled voice of the chazzan and the birdsong.

I prayed. It was a peculiar kind of prayer: mellow, muted, efficient. There was little singing. The rabbi did not speak. It was hot. My mask was uncomfortable. 

And I felt alone. It’s ironic: it was a service created to fulfill the obligation of communal prayer, but I didn’t feel like I was part of a community. Sure, we all chanted the proper responses in unison in their proper places, yet each of us remained eight feet apart, silently lost in our own thoughts and prayers. No one had anything to say to anyone but God.

When the service concluded, I took off my tallis, grunted a few muted “Shabbat Shaloms” through my mask, and walked home alone.

In many ways, the experience was a letdown. I had expected the return to shul to be more grand, more fulfilling, perhaps more emotional. But as I thought about it more, I realized this kind of service had a value of its own: it was deliberate and focused. Maybe we had become accustomed to rolling out of bed and getting to shul whenever we got there. Maybe we mostly went for the kiddush or to see our friends. This Shabbat service, on the other hand, was all about obligation. One had to sign up almost a week in advance. One was expected to be there on time. And once there, the only thing to do was pray. Perhaps loneliness in prayer even reflects an ideal. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik put it when defending the importance of a mehitzah: “Prayer means communion with the Master of the World, and therefore withdrawal from all and everything.  During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated. He must then regard the Creator as an only Friend, from whom alone he can hope for support and consolation” (qtd. in Baruch Litvin, ed., The Sanctity of the Synagogue (New York, 1959), 116).

My shul experience was not exactly enjoyable, and it’s going to be like this for the foreseeable future. Yet I am thankful to be in good health, and so I plan to go anyway. I want to be with a minyan and hear the Torah reading. From a Halakhic perspective, even this bare bones version of communal prayer is preferable to praying in my living room or basement. And if there’s a silver lining, it’s that attending shul is now a matter of deliberate choice and planning. It will require a certain intentionality and focus. We’ll only be there because we want to pray, and because we are willing to do so even in the heat, even without friends, even if we’ll still feel alone. Last Shabbat morning reminded me that it’s possible to create a serious space for prayer stripped of everything but dialogue with God. Maybe we ought to hold onto that part even when the pandemic subsides. 

Next week’s audience with the Almighty awaits.