This week, Israelis voted on who is going to be sitting in the next Knesset. Here in the United States, the race is in full swing to see who will be next to sit in the Oval Office come 2021.
We are also busy with the matter of where we are going to sit in shul for Rosh Hashanah. It is a bit odd that while we are concerned all Elul about standing in judgment before our Creator and King, we are also preoccupied with seating.
The other night I met the gentleman who tends to the seating at the shul I usually attend. When I told him I would be at my daughter’s home in Woodmere for Rosh Hashanah, he complained that I did not inform him that I would or would not be needing my usual seats over yom tov.
I guess he had a point and I should have considered the fact that he might be holding those seats for us as a courtesy, but I was not mindful of that. I realized my error and apologized and in this season of forgiveness he forgave me.
Where we sit over yom tov in our shuls is a major event for many. People who show up in shul without reserving seats or paying annual membership are viewed somewhat askance for conducting themselves outside of the normal social parameters.
Full disclosure mandates writing that I belong to about five shuls, but I usually only reserve seats in one. I like my seats in shul and the people who generally sit near me, and I will miss being there this year. But in some way I am also looking forward to a new venue and new experience, so here we go.
As it turns out, I will be davening in a shul with a nice minyan not too far from my daughter and grandchildren’s home. It’s not a mainstream shul, but I’ve davened there a few times on Shabbosos over the last few months and I can report that it is filled with mainstream people, whatever that is. I suppose some people just feel more comfortable in a smaller and more intimate venue.
I love the big shuls with the great chazzanim, but that is not the way I was brought up. You know that because over two decades I have recounted with affection my evolution from a child shul-goer to grownup shul member.
Even though we lived in Crown Heights during its first heyday (it is now having an elongated second heyday) and davened in the larger-than-life main Chabad shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, as fate had it our family also davened in the small third-floor library of the Frierdiker Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson. I did not know it at the time but that experience and those memories would remain vivid and indelibly imprinted on my mind. And in terms of conjuring up those memories, if I don’t do it at this time of year, then the mandate just might be to forever hold my peace.
As you may recall, this private third-floor minyan started before I was born, when the Rebbe was immobile and could only get around in a wheelchair. There was an elevator in the building, but of course it was not used on Shabbos or yom tov; hence the genesis of a minyan for the Rebbe near his residence.
Securing a seat for this minyan did not require meeting with the seating committee or writing a check. All you had to do was make sure you showed up on the first night of Rosh Hashanah early enough to grab a chair from the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin’s dining room and find a place for it in the library.
That was the job my brother Yossy and I were tasked with: go to 770 early and procure those chairs. In case you are wondering who davens in a mostly empty room and has to procure a chair to sit in on a first-come, first-served basis, well, that would have been us back then.
There were actually two types of chairs. First, there were about a dozen aristocratic-looking, high-back, leather-covered dining-room chairs; if you could get your hands on one, you had it made for yom tov. Then there were the lower-grade chairs that were the folding type, with a red, cloth seat covering. There was a third type of seat — the wooden benches lined up against the walls around the perimeter of the room.
The great thing about the arrangement was that although I was about 10 or so years old, I was entitled to a tall leather chair because I was taking it for my father to sit on. In addition to being one of the founders of the minyan, he was also the ba’al tefillah, which meant he would be standing at the amud most of the time and I could have his chair. It was a good deal.
The recollections of those days are quite vivid. I am also somewhat bemused by the fact that as these things were occurring in my young life, I had no idea that one day they would all be so valuable and precious. I feel fortunate that I can summon those days with so much clarity.
Next week, just a few days prior to Rosh Hashanah, we will read the parashah of Nitzavim. The opening pasuk says it all about these remembrances. “You are all standing firm today before G-d, all of you …”
Our commentaries on this nuance in the Torah’s language say that it is not just all of us who will be in shul next week who are standing. Rather, “all of you” is referring to all the generations that preceded us and those that will arrive in the future.
On Rosh Hashanah, we all stand together in transcendence of space and time. Once again, if only for a few hours, there is a reunion — my parents and grandparents, those who lived full lives, and those whose lives were abbreviated by war or circumstance. We beseech Hashem for a good, healthy, and successful year. And there is power in those numbers.