Synagogue Error

Something strange and wild and interesting happened at synagogue tonight. I drive the Jewish boys to temple on Friday nights, and I usually have a good time. It’s a simple service, and if there’s a minyan they say kaddish and a number of other prayers, the Shema, and some hymns. The boys are usually bored, but sometimes they have fun. They do Kiddush immediately afterward, providing grape juice and wine, and cookies. Usually things go smoothly.

Tonight, after kaddish but before the Shema, one of the little kids in the crowd, a four-year-old in a red sweatshirt, tiny black curlets of hair, and an Animaniacs yarmeluke, goes up on the bima, the dais at the front of the hall, and opens the Ark. It wasn’t the right time in the service to open the Ark.

As a Christian, singer, and seminary student, I’ve often been present in congregation or choir or acolyte space when something has gone significantly wrong, but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to observe it in another tradition. In a Christian service, things feel slightly out of whack until the energies of the participants realign and rededicate themselves to the sacrament at hand.

This was like that, but different. There was this sudden sense of awesomeness, of authority, of awe and presence, that flooded into the room. The synagogue at once seemed darker, dimmer. There was a sudden, inexpressible silence after a strange not-quite sound.

We had heard it unconsciously, a familiar noise and a comforting one, suddenly in an unfamiliar and discomforting place. The sound of the wooden Ark doors on their metal and wood tracks. This sound did not belong at this place in the service, and we reacted quite strongly, becoming silent for a moment before several things happened at once.

The kid began to cry, the rabbi rushed forward to shut the ark doors, the mother of the child rushed forward to grab the kid’s yarmeluke and plant it firmly on his head before sweeping him back to her seat — and everyone began saying, “no, it’s not time yet, this doesn’t happen now, it’s not the right time,” and numerous “NO!”s.

I’ve talked about this often with X and Y and T and F: how a magical working can be disrupted subtly or drastically by a gross interruption in the rite. This looked like it might undo everything, all at once, that had already been done in the service. Nobody seemed to know how to react.

There was a change in the energy, then, maybe a quarter-minute from when the Ark had been opened. As the Rabbi put his hands on the handles of the Ark doors, I had a strong sense of a huge energy spike in the chamber, of wild and uncontrollable energy flooding into the room, a sense of darkness and an awesome presence that filled the room. There was unmitigated, unalloyed power there, huge and ancient and invulnerable.

And I looked, and saw the Torah. For the first time, I really saw the Torah, as opposed to the scrolls the Torah is written upon. The rabbi here had rolled back the ark doors for me to look inside the Ark before, but never in the context of ritual space, never at the ‘wrong time’ in ritual space. At the sight of the three scrolls there, glittering and covered with their plaques and covers, it was like gazing somewhere else. I don’t know where, and I wish I did.

Then, the Ark doors close. For a briefest moment, it is like the presence which I have sensed forms a thin sliver, knife-edge thin, in the space between the doors. It is an impossible, invisible scalpel of light that can cut the world open. And then the doors are really closed, and the Door that they represent is also shut, and the presence is gone. The sense of power, and authority, and ancient purpose, is gone as if it had never been.

The ceremony resumed. The kid isn’t crying any more, we do the next few parts of the service, one of my kids is called up to do a responsive reading on kindness and generosity (how apropos, I think, given that he needs to learn that lesson, still). Then some more prayers, and the Ark is opened.

It’s not the same, not as when it was opened irresponsibly and accidentally. Sure, there’s power and reverence and awe, but most of that is being generated by us, by the congregation, now. There’s almost nothing that wasn’t in the room already. Before, when the kid opened the Ark, it felt like the real deal.

There’s more I want to say about this sometime, but I think it’s going in my pen-and-paper journal. Some stuff you just don’t broadcast, and this may be one of those things. Maybe it’s a mistake to put this in my LJ, but it’s where I’ve typed it, so I’m posting it. I won’t re-write it if it gets deleted.

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