The sanctuary at my synagogue seats 1800 people. I have seen it filled to capacity twice, and spoke to the capacity crowd both times. The first was at the funeral for my cousin, Dr. Richard Harris, in 2001, when I shared the story of the little black doctor’s bag he gifted me when I started medical school. The second was November 3, 2018, when a grief-stricken community piled into the pews to mourn the eleven martyrs from the Tree of Life shooting.
I had been scheduled to give the d’var Torah (literally, “word of Torah,” a humbler and more accurate term for what is sometimes called the sermon), but yielded that responsibility to Hazzan Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, who survived the attack and whose words we all needed to hear so desperately that morning. Instead, I tried to guide the congregation, so full that there were not enough bibles or prayerbooks to go around, and spanning the spectrum from Orthodox to out-of-town non-Jewish media, through the weekly Torah reading section by section, improvising insights out of a book of medieval commentaries that I hoped might connect the prescribed ritual with the desperate need for sense we were all feeling.
A room that size, when filled to capacity, can devour sound. Even with a microphone I often find myself shouting to be heard. When leading prayers I wonder whether anyone is praying along even when there are hundreds in attendance on Yom Kippur.
A room that size, when empty, produces a haunting echo. I’ve known that for years, having conducted countless Bar and Bat Mitzvah rehearsals in the empty, darkened, and often stifling (they don’t turn the AC on unless there is an actual service) space over the past two decades. But for the past four weeks, I have “attended” live-streamed services where my Rabbi (Seth Adelson, of https://themodernrabbi.com/), our executive director, and perhaps the rabbi’s family are the only bodies in attendance. Five people at a table set for 1800 – 0.28% of capacity. The echo is deafening.
The first time I heard it my brain went in two directions at once, neither of them prayerful. The first was inevitable – I made a bilingual pun.
The Hebrew word for echo is hed. I thought immediately of the sleepless nights and early mornings I have experienced since this pandemic began, and before that during the aftermath of the shooting, and before that during times of personal, professional, or family crisis, political tension, or even mundane sports-induced frustration. I lie in bed, desperately wishing to sleep but unable to do so, because I am stuck in my own head – and stuck in the hed of repeated phrases, unbidden thoughts that bounce unchanging and undimming off the inside of my skull.
Even fully awake, we often fall down “rabbit holes” on social media or news websites, pursuing click-bait or following threads to the bitter end, only to hear endless permutations of the same opinion and read dozens of tweets distinguished only by which one said the same words in a wittier way. We call these virtual spaces “echo chambers,” populated by many participants but only a single set of ideas. Again, we are stuck inside of our hed.
The hed inside my head that morning also made me think of the ancient Jewish numerology known as gematria. Each letter of the Hebrew alef-bet gets a numeric value – alef through yod get one through ten, kaf through tzadik get the tens values twenty through ninety, and kuf (or, if you prefer, qof) through tav get the hundreds values one hundred through four hundred.
Hed, the letters hey (five) and daled (four) has a numerical value in Hebrew of nine. While Three Dog Night might have you believe that one is the loneliest number, in Judaism it’s nine. Nine is one person too few to have a minyan, a quorum for worship. Anything worth doing in Judaism is worth doing together, and a minyan is the minimum standard of “togetherness” for praising God in certain ways, publicly commemorating the dead we are mourning, or reading from the Torah scroll. When congregations begin to age and wither, the inability to get a minyan for a service is often the most tell-tale sign – first on weekdays or lesser holidays, then on Shabbat, and eventually even on High Holidays at times. They move from their grand sanctuaries into smaller and smaller prayer spaces, or even sell the building – presumably, to get away from the hed that ricochets off the walls of that cavernously empty hall.
I have spent years learning and teaching about the value of this minyan, especially when it pertains to comforting mourners. We take it on the road to each other’s homes, where wooden folding chairs bloom in living rooms and congregants perch on piano benches so that we can remember the departed. But in the time of coronavirus the worst sin one can commit is entering a home not their own. At least four friends from my congregation have lost parents during the past month, most of them in other cities or countries where they could not travel out of fear of the contagion. No folding chairs, no piano benches, no cookie trays. The silence must be deafening, the hed of grief even moreso.
We are living in the so-called sh’at ha’d’chak, the hour of urgency, that the sages often referenced. In such an hour regular rules are often suspended, or else their definitions are broadened to include things heretofore excluded. Just a few years ago, the Conservative movement of Judaism, sensing that video conferencing might one day challenge the idea that a minyan need be held in one physical location, ruled that one must be present to count as one of the ten, although a person could remotely join an already-constituted minyan for their own personal purposes after that. But hed, nine, people is also the maximum number allowed to congregate under strict social distancing policies. What now?
You have no doubt stood in the street, on the opposite sidewalk from a passing friend, and had a conversation. You have sat on your porch and arranged for family to drive by and wave. Or you have leaned out your window and yelled to the neighbors, perhaps in support of your local medical professionals or in order to sing together. So, apparently, it was done in ages past, maybe during a prior plague, that a minyan of people gathered in a field, perhaps one on a mountaintop where one could hear the hed of voices rebounding from the next peak, like on the southern end of Masada. They were at a distance from one another, yet each saw the other’s faces and so they constituted a minyan.
The video conference has become the open field. The hed is so strong, so uncomfortable, if we leave our microphones open that only the rabbi may be heard. We keep the participants in gallery view so we can always see at least ten other faces at once, keeping our video feed on even as our cats crawl in our laps, our children photobomb the service, and our coffee cools on the desk in front of us.
Yet for all that, we are greater than the hed. We are not nine, nor even ten, but twenty, twenty-five, thirty or more even for the weekday mornings and evenings when in normal times people run across the street to knock on my friend’s door to get her, her father and her teenage daughter to come make a minyan. People in other states have become regulars at our neighborhood service. Sometimes even when I don’t “make it to minyan,” I find myself downstairs listening to the echo, the hed, of the rabbi’s voice drifting down from the third-floor office as I fix dinner, an unexpected perk.
When I first brooded over the jarring sound of the rabbi alone in that space, I thought of another, similar Hebrew word, ed, alef-daled. Ed means steam, or vapor, something evanescent that escapes capture and is gone in an instant. And its gematria is not nine, but five, four for the daled and one for the alef. Five, the number in my immediate family, the current size of the flesh-and-blood population of my entire universe. Yet how many of us have rediscovered the endless wonders of that universe, reminded that according to the Mishna a single human being is an entire world, how much more so four human beings? Not so evanescent after all.
And what, after all, is so bad about an echo? A real echo, like the one in that open field or off the cliff at Masada, amplifies a voice that might otherwise die out with the first utterance, giving the words additional life. When we speak up in a video conference and say, “I’d like to echo what Jane said,” we are not just voices in Jane’s hed, but providing support and reinforcement for what was likely a brilliant idea that ought to propagate outward from our virtual space. And when Italian opera reverberates off the walls of Milan’s apartment buildings, or a communal Echad, Mi Yodea? (Who Knows One, a popular song from the end of the Passover seder) mehadhed (the verb for “echoes”) from balcony to balcony in Jerusalem, we could say that we are putting our heds together, as much as we are allowed to when we are supposed to keep them six feet apart.
An echo carries through time as well as space. There will be echoes of this time for years to come, in the way we practice medicine, the way we greet one another in the street, the way we do business – or don’t do business, given the economic carnage we are seeing. For those who are under stay-at-home orders alone, or who are stuck at home in an unhappy or overtly abusive relationship, the echoes will be fresh trauma stuck in their heads, possibly for a lifetime. Let us hope that the responses to crisis, the flexibility many of us have shown in adapting, reaching out, making do, and finding a way can also echo, especially in service of those for whom this tragedy multiplies itself like plagues in the haggadah.
That enormous sanctuary is named in honor of the late Faye Rubenstein Weiss, who donated considerable funds while she was still living to see it built to the size I described. I said that I have been present twice when it was filled to capacity, but I know that it was again filled to overflowing at least one other time – for the funeral of its namesake, in 2004. I’m not sure why it takes tragedy to pack that place to the rafters. Perhaps when this pandemic is over we can change that. Under the slogan of “Minyan – even better in person!” we can reopen the place, when it is truly safe to do so and not a moment too soon, with a standing-room-only crowd, so dense that even a thirty-foot ceiling won’t produce an echo that can be heard over the rumble of the people – until we raise our voices together, echoing a phrase like hashiveinu hashem elecha v’nashuva; chadesh yameinu k’kedem – return us to you, God, and we will return; renew our days as of old.