Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Shul - The Place for Interpersonal Mitzvot

People naturally think of shul as being primarily a bein adam lamakom domain ("between a person and God"). But in fact, the opportunities to exercise interpersonal sensitivity in shul are so numerous, so constant, that one could reasonably argue that it's predominantly a bein adam lechavero experience ("between a person and their fellow").

And of course, all our ritual religiosity is just pomp and circumstance (Chapter 1 of Yeshayahu/Isaiah actually calls it "abomination") when that religious behavior isn't built on a foundation of human decency and sensitivity.

With that in mind, here's just a partial list of bein adam lechavero opportunities in shul. (Note: I'm referring here to Orthodox davening, but similar principles apply across the board.)
  1. Not going to shul if you're sick or contagious, or if you must, keeping a distance from people.
  2. Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, washing hands after blowing your nose – even if you’re not sick.
  3. Brushing teeth and using deodorant so as not to make it unpleasant for fellow shul-goers.
  4. Helping at home before leaving for shul – getting the kids ready, cleaning up, etc.
  5. Coming with your own siddur or chumash if you know the shul is usually short.
  6. Getting to shul on time if you know someone needs to say kaddish and they might be short on people.
  7. Helping set up the shul for davening.
  8. Making sure the women’s section is set up properly, comfortably.
  9. Making sure the temperature is set correctly so people aren’t uncomfortable.
  10. Asking whether a seat is someone’s makom kevua (set seat).
  11. Not being angry at or embarrassing someone who sits in your makom kevua.
  12. Not taking up more seats or space than necessary with your things.
  13. Not saving seats if the people you’re saving them for aren’t going to arrive reasonably soon and the seats are needed by people already there.
  14. Making sure everyone has a seat, especially older people.
  15. Offering a seat by a table or a shtender to an older person, so they have somewhere to put down their siddur and other things.
  16. Making sure people who need have a siddur and chumash.
  17. Extending a greeting (or if you can’t talk, a non-verbal smile or handshake) to the person who sits down next to you, and in general greeting people warmly when they walk in.
  18. Introducing yourself to a new face, making them feel welcome, noticed.
  19. Helping someone not familiar with the davening find their place in the siddur, and finding them a siddur and chumash with a translation.
  20. Being careful not to whack people with your tallis, either when putting it on or while davening with particular fervor.
  21. Minimizing the clamor your chair makes when you stand up or sit down.
  22. Davening Shemona Esrei quietly, so people aren’t distracted by your whispering.
  23. In general, not singing or davening so loudly that you take over the room and draw people’s attention, or that people mistake your voice for the ba'al tefillah’s (the leader).
  24. Not getting angry when someone sings or davens too loudly.
  25. Being careful not to bother or brush by people davening Shemona Esrei.
  26. Standing toward the front of the room when davening a long Shemona Esrei, so people in front of you who daven faster aren’t made to wait before stepping back.
  27. Agreeing to be the ba'al tefillah if the gabbai needs someone.
  28. If you’re a ba'al tefillah, knowing the usual pace of davening and not being matriach (bothering, delaying) people with long davening or slow tunes.
  29. As a ba'al tefillah, finding out how much singing is desired/expected.
  30. Having patience for a ba'al tefillah who is too slow – or fast – for your taste, or who sings too much – or too little.
  31. Not yelling corrections at the ba'al tefillah, but approaching them in a subtle and friendly way when necessary.
  32. Not expressing impatience at a ba'al tefillah, e.g. by saying “Nu?” when you want them to start chazarat hashatz (the repetition), or shouting “Yitgadal!” if they pause a bit before kaddish.
  33. Not davening so long if it’s a small minyan and you think it may hold up chazarat hashatz.
  34. Not getting upset at people who unknowingly delay chazarat hashatz with their long davening.
  35. If you have a talent at it, offering in advance to be the ba'al koreh (Torah reader).
  36. Not correcting the ba'al koreh if it’s not your place to do so.
  37. Being careful not to embarrass the ba'al koreh by harshly correcting them – especially a bar mitzvah or a young or inexperienced reader.
  38. Not talking audibly during chazarat hashatz, kriyat hatorah or kaddish, so as not to distract, disrespect or show lack of caring to the person reciting.
  39. Not embarrassing someone who’s talking by loudly “shushing” them or otherwise showing anger.
  40. Answering “amen” and singing along audibly, so that people leading davening or saying kaddish feel good that people are listening and participating.
  41. Expressing genuine simcha for people celebrating significant life-events in shul, and likewise sympathy for mourners.
  42. Showing joy when your children come to sit with you, and making it a positive experience even if they distract your davening, talk, don’t daven, etc.
  43. Making sure your children aren’t disturbing others.
  44. Helping someone who gets a kibud (honor) in shul and doesn’t know what to do, but without embarrassing them.
  45. Acknowledging people who get kibudim with a handshake, smile, "yishar koach," etc.
  46. Not being put off when you don’t get kibudim – just the opposite, wanting others to have the honor, feeling reluctant to “take” when you can give.
  47. If you’re the gabbai, using kibudim to include people, make them feel welcome, not ignored.
  48. Not pushing anyone out of the way in order to touch or kiss the sefer Torah.
  49. Handing a siddur to the person who just did hagbah and is occupied with holding the sefer Torah.
  50. Asking women whether they have any names for the misheberach for cholim (ill).
  51. Standing for the misheberach for the Medina and Tzahal if that’s the shul’s minhag (custom).
  52. Not getting angry at people who don’t stand for whatever reason.
  53. Giving your attention to someone who gives a drasha (sermon) – i.e. not talking, reading a book, falling asleep or walking out, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable.
  54. Not being matriach people by giving a long drasha.
  55. Being sensitive to the audience, giving a drasha they can understand and relate to, being careful not to offend or alienate people, or give overly heavy mussar (reproach) if it’s not your place.
  56. Not being matriach people with long post-davening announcements.
  57. Not getting upset when people speak too long.
  58. Picking up trash, candy wrappers, etc.
  59. Helping put siddurim and chumashim away.
  60. If you used a shul tallis, put it back neatly.
  61. Buying a few siddurim or chumashim for the shul if you see they’re needed.
  62. Thanking the ba'al koreh, gabbaim, ba'alei tefillah and shul rabbi for their efforts.
  63. Offering to chip in for or sponsor kiddush or third meal on occasion.
  64. At kiddush, looking to let others take first, not wanting to contribute to a “feeding frenzy.”
  65. Offering to get a plate of food and drink for an older person.
  66. Making sure that your children aren’t running amok, taking too much food, or making a mess.
  67. Not standing right by the kiddush table and making people have to walk around you to get to the food.
  68. Extending yourself to people who are standing or sitting alone, or who you know are going through difficult times.
  69. Expressing warmth and congratulations to ba'alei simcha and their family members.
  70. Thanking the kiddush sponsors and people who do setup and cleanup.
  71. Helping to set up and clean up, or at the very least cleaning up after yourself and your family.
  72. In general, looking for ways to contribute, not just spectate.
  73. Inviting people for a meal on Shabbat/Yom Tov if you suspect they may not have a place to go.
  74. Not asking a person where they davened today, so as not to embarrass someone who didn’t go to shul.
Again, this is a partial list. I'm sure you have more to add - feel free to expand in the comments!

And if you're interested in some of the concepts behind the davening, I hope you don't mind if I quickly plug my book, Ohr HaShachar. It's a commentary on the daily morning blessings, which closely examines the meanings of the words. But more than that, it's a philosophical work that explores Torah concepts such as kedusha and bracha, tuma and tahara, Hashem vs. Elokim, the Book of Iyov and the question of suffering, and a good deal more. The book combines rationalism and kabbalah, futurism along with traditional commentary, has dozens of diagrams and hundreds of footnotes - plenty of material to keep you occupied and hopefully provide some fresh perspective on words that are so often said by rote.

Available from Urim Publications, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or if you live nearby me, I'm happy to get you a personally inscribed copy!