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Toward Shabbat: Vayishlah

Blessed is the hour when I reenter your sanctuary,
Where I may again open my heart
To my God and deliverer
Within a community of worshipers.
Almighty God—here, where so many hearts
Open in unison to adore and glorify your name,
Also accept my thanks and praise.

From Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women by Dina Berland

I recited this prayer in the BJ Sanctuary at the brit milah of my son, Aiden, and the simhat bat of my daughter, Sivan. The prayer is entitled, “On Returning to Synagogue After Childbirth,” but its opening section recognizes the power of being a part of a prayer community, the gift of being connected to God, and the impact of having such a place that opens us up and allows us to access emotions that are often elusive.

I’ve been thinking about this prayer a lot as the Sanctuary is starting to feel more full than empty—a gift not to be taken for granted. Faces that I haven’t seen in person for almost two years are finding their way back. Two weeks ago, at the end of Shabbat morning services, we offered blessings to the upcoming B’nai Mitzvah students, who typically receive these blessings in 6th grade but were delayed a year because of the pandemic. Children accompanied by their parents walked into the service for the first time in a very long time, inches if not a foot taller than the last time I had seen them, more mature physically and emotionally.

As I experience this return week after week, I distinctly remember the well of emotion rising up within me when I recited the above prayer’s words eight days after giving birth. I was deeply grateful for having a sanctuary and a community to come back to and a prayer that acknowledged how much I had changed. I remember how held I felt in this holy place filled with voices of prayer and song, silence and tears—like reuniting with an old friend. The place, and all that it represents, has served as a true sanctuary for me and a cornerstone of my life.

I feel like we need this kind of prayer now more than ever. We have labored each in our own way to find a way through this pandemic. We’ve learned. We’ve mourned. We’ve been afraid. We’ve been humbled. We’ve had new dreams. Many of us feel forever changed. It is important to mark that change in the coming home (or a coming for the first time, for those who’ve joined us during the pandemic). In Talmud Berakhot 58b, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “One who sees one’s friend after thirty days recites the Sheheheyanu blessing.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this occasion.

Gratitude is expressed not only in the marking of the time but in the distance we’ve traveled, how we’ve changed. What we have birthed, what we have lost, and that we have literally lived.

As I anticipate going to my childhood home this Thanksgiving, celebrating with extended family, I feel enormous gratitude that we have come this far and have the opportunity to be together safely. Sadly, this will also be the first Thanksgiving without my Baubie z”l. But with all that has changed and all that will be the same, I pray that whether it is in the Sanctuary on 88th Street or in the sanctuary of my childhood home, or wherever we may find ourselves, that our hearts will be open and attentive to all that wells up. That we can find gratitude for the ways we as a community, and chosen and given families, have sustained each other, and for the God that we can always come home to.

That is my prayer.

Happy Thanksgiving!