The Scent Of An Empty Shul

It was the last day of Pesach, and I was in Shul, alone, just me and the many empty chairs, as mandated by the Health department and Rabbinic authorities, that all must practice social distancing and not assemble, to help slow/end this horrible pandemic.

Keeping my promise to act as proxy Yizkor-sayer for my community, with Torah in hand, I gingerly walked up to the ark to carefully remove a scroll and prepare to read the lists of names sent in for memorial on this final day of Pesach.

I moved curtains over, and began to slide the doors of the Holy Ark open to be able to take a Torah in hand. The musty smell of the Torah hit me like a blast in the face. It was a wonderful smell, not at all unpleasant. It was the smell of parchment, and the beautiful covers sitting in an airtight environment encapsulating the over 3,300 years of our Jewish history in front of me. 

As I carefully took the Torah into my hands, I rested it on my chest as I pressed my nose into the soft velvet cover, to take in the wonderful smell of our everything deep into my lungs. Tears formed at the corners of my eyes as I realized that I was holding our precious Torah for the first time in nearly 6 weeks. In my life, I don’t remember going that long not touching, seeing or reading from our holy scrolls.

I realized, as simplistic as it might sound, I missed the Torah. I missed the Torah, and missed our community. I guess I just took for granted the centrality and sense of community that the Torah created. I missed our minyan people and Shul environment more than I realized. 

My thoughts moved over to the colorful and eclectic bunch that made up the totality of our little minyan that could.

There is *Robert. Robert who walks over five miles each way, to and from Shul who certainly comes to take from the community element of Shul, the camaraderie that is in Shul, but who contributes much more than he receives. With his melodic tenor/baritone voice, you hear him before you see him. When he enters the room, the musical part of everyone present is awakened. We all suddenly start davening harder, more meaningfully and with more soul.

Of course there is Mathew. Mathew schleps a long distance and knows most of the prayers but has a palpable depth and connection to the services, almost as if he sees the kabbalistic underlying meanings in everything being read. Being in his presence is like being in the presence of a Rebbe. It makes you want to dig deeper into your soul and find greater meaning to the already time enriched words.

I can’t hold back from mentioning Simcha, our holy Kohen. Reliable as a chronograph, pragmatic as a scientist, friendly as your best neighbor but perhaps his greatest value, like the Kohanim of the ancient times, imbued with the inborn attribute of Chesed/kindness that is deeply attractive, inspiring and encouraging to be our best all at once. He is a magnet of love, and I miss him terribly.

I’m thinking of Mitch, who in his cowboy boots and his strong intentional strides, comes to Shul, not because he was begged to come but because he wants to be there. He represents the essence of a spiritual growth mindset person. We only met a few years ago, and we became fast friends as his pragmatic approach to Judaism has taught me that business, math and science can be tools for greater Jewish adherence and growth. I recall him hearing the line from a Chassdic discourse said at my sons beginning-to-put-on-Tefillin party, where it says that since we are obligated to study Torah all day, but are unable, Gd makes us a deal. Put on Tefillin and I will consider it as if we’ve studied Torah all day. Mitch purchased a pair of Tefillin that instant and started laying them daily. As he put it, “this is the greatest ROI (return on investment) I have seen in a long time.”

There are so many others that are worthy of mention but time does not allow me to go through our entire Minyan that could, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention missing my friend Eric. Eric might be best described as your best friend. The sweetest most easygoing and unassuming person you can meet. Completely comfortable in his own skin, you cannot help but immediately at ease in his company. You just want to share your mind and heart with him. Your wins and losses are celebrated and empathized by him as if he were your brother. Notwithstanding his own medical challenges, you never hear a complaint leave his mouth he is positively embodied. He is the Jewish Mr. Rogers of our Shul and I can’t wait to be reunited with him.

As I finished the Yizkor prayers and put the Torah back into the ark, I took one final deep breath to inhale the fragrance and allow the aroma to enter my lungs and my soul so I can hold onto these deep memories until we can once again reunite in person with the personalities that make up the totality of our little Shul that could.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent

I Tested Positive for Covid-19


Disclaimer: this was written last week, but I refrained from posting I until I was at least 72 hours symptom free and 100% not contagious anymore according to my doctors and cleared to go out with mask on. Thank Gd we are past that point.

Update on my health and a short (not) Passover thought.

Ok, the cat is out of the bag. My test confirming what I already knew came back Saturday night. I am Covid 19 Positive. My intentions originally were to keep this info to myself and family and follow the quarantining instructions and get through it quietly. I am reminded of the old Jewish adage, that if you want to keep something a secret, you cannot tell anyone.

Alas, now that I am getting questions and blessings from so many, on something I didn’t even want known, I’d rather control the message, so here goes.

First of all, while I am one of the 1.5 million confirmed cases (as of this writing), there are millions (possibly 10 times (or more) than that amount that are infected and have mild to no symptoms, so I am not quite that special.

I guess my uniqueness is that I actually got a test before they were widely available.

I want to preface the rest of this note, that I am grateful to Hashem that my symptoms are mild and this story is not even one worth sharing other than the fact that I’ve been approached by so many. Additionally I know many who have passed, close relationships and relatives and others who are fighting for their lives, and they are the real story and should have speedy recovery and the others should be comforted for their losses. Including my cousin in Germany Benyomin ben Faigel and my Sister’s father-in-law Chaim Levi ben Chana Priva.

OK, to answer your questions.

How did I get it?

How did I get a test?

How do I feel?

How long does it last?

When will life go back to what it used to be? (no idea, but it will be a better world when it does, I guarantee that!)

How did I get infected? In all likelihood I was exposed by my children, one who came back from Brooklyn and the other who came from New Haven after having had direct exposure in their school/communities and being sent home. We did try to quarantine them at home, though you can imagine how difficult that is and it did not last long. One child noted how he did not have a sense of smell, a pretty clear early indicator.

I must note that from when they came home we have been practicing social distancing, well before local schools closed and it became a state mandate. Our trips out of the house were very very limited, only to get basics, but with obvious consciousness about not spreading this thing. We treated ourselves as if we were exposed.

My first symptoms were a very low grade fever and super achy muscles that woke me up at night Thursday March 19th. I attributed it to working out too hard on one of those T-20 home workout videos and didn’t think much of it. Friday night, my body felt like 1000 pounds and I couldn’t get out of bed. By Monday I felt fine already. I did have a slight dry cough that I still have, and that has been the one thing I cannot shake. I lost my sense of smell a few days later, but yesterday, I walked into the house and smelled cake baking (at least 10% smell) and I knew right then, that all will be well again on the planet. Eventually.

I got a call for bris, that should’ve been Monday 4/6/20 but I was wracked by guilt that I might expose this young family. I spoke with my PCP Dr’s last week, and was told 72 hours symptom free and I am free to practice mila/circumcision with PPE. The question was, am I symptom free? Other than my slight cough (nearly gone), everything else was fine. I decided I was obligated to tell them the circumstance and help them with a back up plan, and b) to get a test before performing this mitzvah. To my surprise when calling my PCP, they said that they have a drive through at the office, where they can swab me for flu and if negative they can swab me for Covid 19. I did it and the flu was negative, and Covid-19 was positive and I got my call Saturday night.

I immediately notified the family that I could not perform the Bris and am now being even more careful to keep out of site. Having said the above, I am essentially a week symptom free (waiting for the slight cough to finish), though viral “shedding” can continue so being quarantined for Pesach is not such a bad idea for me. My kids, not so happy about this.

I did develop incredible back pain, and one of the docs thought it might be related to pneumonia and ordered lung x-rays and fortunately those turned out clear, so we continue to monitor and keep it safe. If you want to say a prayer, my name is נחמי-ה בן רחל לאה.

So to those who didn’t know, now you do. To those who did, now you know the rest of the story.

For myself, I am grateful to Hashem that what could have been so much worse turned out to be fairly mild.


I wouldn’t be a rabbi if I didn’t grab the bully pulpit and share a lesson in what is going on.

I think “formally” having the diagnosis vs. thinking and wondering, allows you the knowledge and the pain of feeling like a leper an outcast of sorts.

If I go for a early morning jog with a bandanna around my face, people will be (rightfully?) upset that I have left my home? Being quarantined, in Jewish history was attributed to the leper who gossiped or spoke evil talk about another. His punishment was to sit outside the camp in the ultimate time out and think about his actions that caused division and separation among husband and wife, or friends (whom he slandered) and now he was separated from the community. He sat there until the Cohen, filled with total love, deemed him healed of the malady and he could return to the camp.

I won’t compare being quarantined by virus in the sense of the sins committed, though Gd knows I can do a much better job of not talking gossip and the like. However I do like the comparison to the quarantine part of it.

The leper needed to step away and do some thinking. The quarantined is being given an opportunity to step away and do some thinking. What am doing? How am I spending my time? What are my values? What is important to me? Perhaps I can take this downtime and step off the hamster wheel of life an reflect what is life about?

Do I like what I see? Where can I make some improvements? Now that has value.

As Divine providence has it, we will be going into Pesach this Wednesday night and will be entering a 72 hour off-line break from technology. We will be “quarantined” from technology a really good idea if I’ve heard one. We will be focusing and ridding ourselves of our chometz, our leaven our ego, anger, and other traits that are just not kosher (for Pesach or ever). Removing the virus of division and deception (to ourselves and others) from our midst.

When we do that, we certainly return after Pesach in a much healthier way, with a fresh new approach to the world and our spiritual identity and relationships. While painful (in many ways) it is worth it if we come out the other side cleaner, healthier and better.

So, as we hunker down, I invite you to hunker with me (figuratively) and learn the lessons without the diagnosis.

May we all be blessed with health and happiness and may all those that need a speedy recovery be blessed by heaven with a full recovery and may we merit the coming of the Moshiach when we will no longer experience illness or war of any type.

A kosher un Freilichen Pesach!

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