By Larry Gordon
The seating charts are out and are already posted on the wall in many shuls. So as we enter the New Year and review the year that was, we may not know exactly where we stand, but with a cursory look at the chart, at least we know where we sit.
Yes, it’s the time of year to take stock, do a cheshbon ha’nefesh, an inventory of our thought processes and priorities. And perhaps on the surface, where the seating committee evaluates where we belong in shul probably helps us along in figuring out not just who we want to be but who we are.
I think I’m in the post-seating-chart part of life, but of course you never know what the future will be. The first quarter-century of my life I davened on yom tov at the main international Chabad shul at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Those were indeed the days, my friend; we genuinely thought they would never end.
There were no seating charts in 770—at least none that I knew of. Somehow people knew where they belonged. I don’t know if that is really so anymore.
The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur minyan at Chabad in Crown Heights at which my father and his children davened for many years was not your average minyan. It dated back to the 1940s when the Frierdiker Rebbe, R’ Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, was immobile, in a wheelchair, and required that a minyan be organized on the same floor where he and his wife resided on the third floor of World Lubavitch headquarters.
I’ve written about those years more than a few times, so I beg your indulgence if I’m repeating this unique history that is still so vivid to me. I am still studying those years, conjuring different aspects of the experience from year to year.
Thinking back, it was a majestic experience, but also shrouded in simplicity. For example, how did one go about securing a seat at this minyan, which took place in the Rebbe’s library up on that third floor?
As teenagers it was our job annually to make it to shul early on erev Rosh Hashanah to survey what was going on in that room. Many years later I asked a caretaker at 770 to take me up there again to look around and I was struck by how small that room really was. Our job was to walk down the long hallway to what was the home of the previous Rebbe and slide the dining-room chairs from around the dining-room table down that hall and into the library where the minyan was held. The mission was just to secure the several chairs that we needed.
There were three types of seats one could have at this minyan. The first and most preferable were the regal dining-room chairs that had a shiny brown leather-like look. The second choice was a folding chair that had red cushion-like material on the seat and the back. The third option that was in place before anyone arrived was the plain wooden benches that were placed around the circumference of the room.
Children did not have the right to the leather chairs; those were for the exclusive use of the adults. In our case, however, since our father was the ba’al tefillah, we were able to take turns sitting on his chair while he was at the amud.
This week’s Torah reading is Nitzavim, which means “standing.” The first pasuk quotes Moshe addressing the Jewish people, saying, “Today you are standing, all of you together, before G-d, your G-d, the heads of your tribes, your elders, your police officers, every Jewish person.” The next pasuk goes through the different people standing before Hashem: “Your young children, women, and converts within your camp, your woodcutters and water-drawers…”
Right there in the first two sentences of the parashah there is a reference to how we are all standing together, united as one, but then it goes on to depict the different types and levels of people who are supposed to be included in this united group. Are we truly one people, or are we a disparate collection of various groups of people at different stations in life?
One of the answers is that by virtue of our G-dly souls we are indeed united as one people at this time of year, “all standing together”—in judgment, perhaps—before Hashem.
Back in 770 at what we used to refer to as our “upstairs minyan,” we did not do a lot of standing up, as the relatively small room did not have an aron kodesh where the Torah scrolls could be stored. So over all those years there was no opening and closing the aron as instructed somewhat frequently in our Machzorim.
When it came to the Torah-reading part of the service, two men from the minyan went to one of the downstairs minyanim to borrow two sifrei Torah and bring them up to our room where my father was also the ba’al korei. The point is that during the davening on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when it states that this is where the aron is opened, we didn’t have one, so we just didn’t open it up or stand.
As we head into 5882, there is one more thing that I have to recall, and that is the personage of Rav Moshe Dov Ber Rivkin who served as the de facto rav of this minyan. Rabbi Rivkin blew the shofar for many years and was given the maftir aliyah on both days of Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Rivkin was a Lubavitcher chassid and also a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Two things about him caught my attention, and all these years later those recollections have never left me.
The first was the way he read the haftarah that we read on Rosh Hashanah about Chana, her deep and sincere prayer for children, and how she was criticized, so to speak, by Eli HaKohen during this period of the Mishkan in Shiloh. The story of Chana and her inability to have children is always heart-wrenching. But Rabbi Rivkin sobbed uncontrollably as he recounted the fashion in which Chana beseeched the Ribbono shel Olam until she was successful and did in fact give birth to a son who grew up to be Shmuel HaNavi.
From observing the rabbi I learned to internalize that story year after year and later learned that the way in which Chana davened was the barometer of how a Jew can and should daven, particularly at this time of year. I think that what we need to know is that our tefillos can have impact and change things from a personal as well as a communal perspective.
Rabbi Rivkin, who always looked like an elderly man to me, also blew the shofar in our upstairs minyan. He blew slowly, methodically, and with strength. But there came a time, in 1973 or 1974, when he tried to blow into the black shofar that he used year after year but it just would not make a sound.
I recall watching as he finally gave in and handed his shofar over to a younger man who was a regular at our minyan. That person blew the shofar in the years that followed.
As I’ve recounted in previous years, the best part of the davening for me was joining my father under his tallis as he led the minyan in Birkas Kohanim. This signaled the end of the service and I could see on my father’s face that he was pleased with what he had delivered. He swayed slowly as he led the kohanim in the priestly blessing. As he moved from side to side, he put his arms around my brother and me and we gently rocked with him in rhythm. I looked up at his face, watching him mouth the words with his beautiful melodic tone. Then our eyes would meet and he would smile.
We stood together, and in a sense we still stand together today. After all, that’s how this week’s parashah begins: “You are standing firmly today, all of you together…”
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