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

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