Socially Distanced but Spiritually Close

Over the last whatever number of months (I can’t even remember what day it is), we have been moving farther and farther apart from one another. The notion of distancing–social or physical–has embedded itself into every facet of our lives.

It’s hard to imagine that I haven’t actually shaken anyone’s hand since March. I haven’t seen over 95% of my congregation in person. When I’m out running, I have to interrupt being able to get “in the zone” as I remember to steer around other walkers and runners. If I’m out shopping, I reflexively recoil anytime I feel another person getting too close. I can’t even watch TV shows or movies now without looking at the scenes and thinking that people are standing way too close to each other.

The other day as I was preparing to lead minyan–in my empty sanctuary, standing at my podium (and I mean my podium because no one else is allowed to stand there or touch anything or come anywhere close), walled off with plexiglass barriers from any traces of contact, I began the familiar act of putting on tefillin. And I stumbled across the realization that this was the first truly tactile experience I’ve had in synagogue over the entire duration of our social distancing.

As I slowly wrapped the leather straps around my arm, forming the traditional pattern over my hand, and placing the proper part over my head, I imagined that the Jewish religion itself was sending a message of comfort and consolation. It’s OK–we got this.

And housed within the black boxes that make up tefillin are texts taken from the Torah–one of which is a particular passage with which many modern Jews–including myself–have a love/hate relationship. In this passage, the second paragraph of the Shema, we basically read of an angry and punitive Old Testament God who will punish the Israelites with death if they don’t strictly follow His ways. And how will this happen? We read among other things that “God will close the heavens and hold back the rain; the earth will not yield its produce.”

The only way I have been able to get through these troubling and seemingly primitive words is to imagine that this text is a metaphor for our relationship with nature and the environment. What we do and how we treat the planet and the world around us has consequences. So rather than reflect an anachronistic view of religion–“God will smite thee”–there can be no more appropriate and visceral act than wrapping ourselves in this passage, bringing these very words near to us and making contact with our bodies, during a global natural crisis when every other aspect of life demands greater distance. Yes, nature is sometimes quixotic and capricious–but we can still bring about a positive outcome with the proper actions and decisions.

The last months have forced all of us in the Jewish world to look at our services and traditions in a new perspective. It may be time to take a fresh look at the ancient ritual of tefillin.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “Socially Distanced but Spiritually Close

  1. Matt, as always very inspiring, Todah Rabbah Chazak Veematz Paul


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