First, A Disclaimer
The following story describes the irreverent behavior of a group of worshipers in a shul. The author wishes to make it clear that this is not an accurate representation of what actually occurs in most synagogues.
Rather, it is a verbal caricature of sorts, which exaggerates certain patterns of human behavior for purposes of instruction.
One further point. You may imagine that you recognize the main character of this story. This is not surprising. A wise man once noted that every synagogue has the same members – they just have different names. I wish to state categorically that any resemblance between the characters in this story and actual people is purely coincidental. The players in this story are fictional stereotypes, wholly figments of the author’s imagination.
And Now the Story
Before the e-mails arrived, Bernie Goldberg was a big talker, especially when davening (prayer) in the Tefilla Bikavana Synagogue in Anytown, USA. Rabbi Yisroel Cohen, the young, energetic rabbi of the shul, valiantly campaigned against the constant lack of decorum. Every Shabbos morning the Rabbi’s blood pressure would rise slowly as the noise level continued to escalate. Finally, when the chatter reached an intolerable decibel, the Rabbi would stop the chazan (cantor), pound on his shtender (lectern) and make an impassioned plea to Bernie and his cohorts. Each week the Rabbi tried a different argument:
- “Talking during davening is a grave sin which is strictly forbidden by Halacha”.
- If one engages in any form of idle conversation in shul (even when not davening), he violates the Biblical commandment of “Es mikdoshi tirou- you shall revere my sanctuary”.[i]
- “How can you be so insensitive to your neighbors, who are trying to pray with kavana (concentration)?”
- “You are setting a terrible example for your children.”
- “This behavior is entirely inappropriate for a holy place”.
These mini-speeches fell on deaf ears. Bernie and his friends waited impatiently for the Rabbi’s outbursts to end. They paused a few moments until the Rabbi sat down, and then picked up the conversation exactly where they left off before the interruption.
Bernie would often justify his irreverent behavior. “I work hard all week, and I don’t have a chance to socialize. Davening time affords me an important opportunity to catch up with my friends. My father talked in shul, my grandfather talked in shul, and I imagine my ancestors did the same for generations. In the final analysis, I consider it an inalienable right to converse freely during the davening”.
One particularly noisy Shabbos morning, Rabbi Cohen stopped the davening, but he did not pound on the shtender and deliver his traditional fire and brimstone invective. Instead, he looked defeated and spoke in a hushed tone.
“My friends, I am at a total loss, and no longer know what to do. I just can’t seem to get through to you, and my words do not penetrate your consciousness. If only I could somehow open your eyes to the seriousness of your sin for just one moment…but how? ”
The first e-mail arrived the very next day. The address indicated that it was sent from one Mallach (angel) to another with a copy to Bernie Goldberg. Understandably, no one had ever received a communication of this sort before, and it created quite a stir in Congregation Tefilla Bikavana when Bernie showed it to his friends.
FROM: A Young Mallach
TO: His Supervisor
SUBJECT: Mallachim Conference on Decorum cc: Bernie Goldberg
This is to summarize the discussion that took place at our recent conference of Mallachim in the Rokiah Hashomayim (firmament of the heaven), and to document my subsequent follow up activities.
The theme of the conference was the lack of proper decorum in the synagogue environment. The chairman of the conference introduced the topic this way:
“As angels, we are particularly sensitive to the negative consequences of conversing during tefilla (prayer). We are assigned the special task of escorting a person’s prayers to the heavens and bringing the tefillos before the throne of the Almighty.[ii] G-d has no desire to hear the prayers of habitual talkers, who do not show reverence to Him. Such prayers are like lead balloons. When people converse in shul our wings are clipped, and we are unable to carry the tefillos to the shomayim (heaven). For us, this is a source of pain and anguish, because we cannot fulfill our assigned missions.[iii]
Though this unfortunate condition has defied solutions for many centuries,[iv] it was thought that perhaps some of the younger Malachim might offer new insights and suggest innovative approaches to this disturbing problem.”
After listening to a fine delivery by one of the Malachim, I was inspired to propose a new idea. This speaker noted that the central cause for talking in shul, and for that matter, the lack of kavana as well, is that people do not grasp spiritual realities. If man would only catch a tiny glimpse of the spiritual rays of the Shechina (Divine presence) and the hosts of angels, which fill every shul, no one would dare utter a single sound of disrespect. Alas, mortal man is not permitted to see spiritual realities. He lives his life blindly in the transient material world, and only when the soul departs from the body is the neshama stunned to discover that he lived in darkness throughout his lifetime.
It was then that I proposed a radical strategy. “True, mortal man is not allowed to perceive overt spirituality, and for that reason, we Malachim are not permitted to reveal ourselves to ordinary people. Nonetheless, could we not avail ourselves of new technologies and communicate to mankind via e-mail? Since this does not constitute a supernatural event, it would not violate our restrictions of engagement with human beings. Imagine the profound impact an e-mail from a Mallach would have on an incorrigible shul talker!”
My proposal was accepted, and I was given an opportunity to establish a pilot program to test my plan. It was suggested that my first experimental e-mail communication be sent to Bernie Goldberg, a particularly notorious talker. He is therefore being copied on this memo. He will now be on alert that I will send further e-mails to him in the near future about this matter. I am certain that initially he will think this is a hoax, but eventually he will be forced to change his mind.
Bernie Goldberg spotted the email on his computer with the strange subject title, “Malachim Conference on Decorum”. Bernie opened the email and read through the memo with disbelief. At first he was slightly amused, but by the time he finished reading the correspondence, he was outraged.
“What an enormous chutzpah to make me the subject of a practical joke”, he thought to himself.
That Shabbos, he brought copies of the e-mail to shul and distributed them to his friends. Davening that week was particularly noisy, as Bernie’s chaverim (friends) loudly attacked the anonymous sender. It was clear to everyone that Rabbi Cohen authored this unbecoming letter, and they concurred that the Rabbi had gone too far this time. The Rabbi, in turn, responded to the noise with a fiery talk:
“I just don’t understand your conduct. I know that most people have personal difficulties in life; it may be a family illness or a financial crisis, a lack of shalom bayit (domestic tranquility) or a troubled child. Everyone has his or her own pekel (burden). No doubt, when each of us prays to Hashem three times a day, we ask Him to resolve those problems that rest most heavily on our hearts.
Imagine if your employee would approach you for a raise and say to you, ‘I feel I deserve a $5,000 increase in salary. Let me tell you why.’ Suddenly, he spots his friend in the hallway and walks away to speak to him. When he finishes, he resumes his request. ‘I put in long hours from…’ Before he ends the sentence he pulls out his cell phone and calls his stockbroker for ten minutes. When the call is over, he begins again. ‘So, as I was saying, I work hard…’ Then he turns his back to you and looks out the window and talks to people passing by about the weather and other trivialities. Would you give this fellow a raise? Of course not. In all likelihood, you would reduce his salary or, possibly, fire him on the spot!
Do you think Hashem listens to your pleas when you constantly interrupt your prayers to speak to a friend or neighbor? More likely, you make the situation worse by your insulting behavior.
My friends, the great 18th century Posek (legal decisor), Rav Avraham Danzig, makes a frightening comment, in his classic work, Chayei Adam.[v] At the end of the period of the first Temple, the Jewish people compromised their religious values, and Yeshayahu Hanavi (the prophet Isaiah) chastised the people in the name of Hashem. ‘When you come to appear before me, who sought this from your hand, to trample My courtyards.’[vi] In other words, G-d said to them, ‘Who asked you to come to my holy Temple? If you act immorally, I do not want you in the Bais Hamikdash.’ The Chayai Adom says that the same words of rebuke apply to people who act inappropriately in shul. Hashem says to them: ‘Mi bikaish zos miyedchem rimos chatzeirai – Who sought this from your hand, to trample my courtyard.’ If this is the case, perhaps you would do better to daven at home alone, rather than come to shul.”
The people didn’t like Rabbi Cohen’s suggestion for home-prayer one bit. “He is anti-social,” they said.
Chaim Green, one of the members of the talkers’ club, was quiet and pensive that Shabbos morning. Bernie asked him if anything was wrong.
“Well what if the e-mail was not written by Rabbi Cohen, but by a real live Mallach?”
Bernie was agitated. “Chaim, are you for real? Mallachim don’t have conferences and they don’t send e-mail. The whole thing is an obvious prank.”
Chaim persisted. “Maybe Hashem is upset that we talk so much in shul. Because He doesn’t communicate with ordinary mortals, He disguised his
message in a story about a Mallachim conference.”
For a moment Bernie hesitated and considered this suggestion, but he promptly regained his composure and dismissed Chaim’s misgivings. “Don’t worry”, he said – and quickly walked away.
Next Friday, Bernie received a second e-mail. This one spoke directly to him:
FROM: A Concerned Mallach
TO: Bernie Goldberg
SUBJECT: How Many Stars Are in the Universe?
Bernie Goldberg – why are you not afraid to speak in shul? It is because you have no sense of awe for the Master of the Universe. Follow this simple exercise, and you will soon learn proper reverence.
Look out the shul window at the sun. Try to stare at it. You cannot. If you force yourself, your eyes will be blinded. The sun is 93 million miles away, yet even at such enormous distances, mortal man cannot gaze at the sun. Think about the power of the sun and the fact that it was created by Hashem.
Later tonight, go outside and look up at the stars in the heaven. How many stars are in the sky? There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Can you picture the magnitude of that number? There is still more. The universe contains approximately 125 billion galaxies, each of which may contain more than 200 billion stars. All told, there are more than 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (1022) in the universe, some of which are trillions of light years away.
Who created, in one split moment, on the fourth day of creation, all these celestial bodies? Who continuously maintains their existence? G-d Almighty. [vii]
Now human beings are inconsequential specks of dust in the great expanse of time and space. Puny man is but a few square feet of matter. He lives briefly for 60, 70, 80 years and then disappears for eternity into the vacuum of emptiness and non-existence.
Yet for all his apparent insignificance, man can outshine all the stars. One manifestation of human prominence is man’s ability to stand in prayer. No other creation, including an angel, is able to make personal requests to Hashem. What an enormous privilege for man to daven before the Master of the Universe!
Bernie, think about what occurs when you go to pray in a synagogue. The Almighty, in his kindness, rests his Shechina within the walls of the shul, and sends hosts of angels to act as special emissaries to escort your tefillos to the seat of his Heavenly throne. And what do you do? You foolishly and irreverently sit back in your seat in shul and discuss with your friends your new designer socks, how long you plan to sleep this afternoon, and what brand of tuna you prefer. You chase the angels away and anger G-d every time you step foot into shul. Are you not ashamed?
Bernie brought this e-mail to shul on Shabbos and showed it to his friends. They were not amused. What nerve the Rabbi had to give them mussar under this thinly veiled guise of e-mail from a Mallach. As a matter of principle, Bernie made certain to talk straight through the entire davening.
One person who was deeply moved by this latest e-mail was Chaim Green. He followed the angel’s advice and gazed out the window at the bright morning sun. He could not look at the ball of fire. He thought about the billions of stars suspended above, and the G-d who created this magnificent universe. Suddenly, Chaim began to shiver, and he quickly made his way out of the sanctuary. He struggled upstairs and entered the balcony that overlooked the shul. Chaim stood there silently and peered over the railing at the congregation below. “So this is what Hashem sees when he looks down from His heavenly abode”, Chaim thought. He was stunned. Throughout the shul, people were milling around, engaged in animated conversations, while the chazan struggled to make his voice heard above the din of the talking parishioners.
Chaim imagined that he saw scores of angels in the synagogue, desperately trying to grab the attention of the would-be worshippers. He could hear them beckoning and pleading, but everyone seemed oblivious to their call. Chaim saw the sunlight dancing on the faces of the people. Perhaps G-d was shining the sun in their eyes, a giant flashlight of sorts, to have them notice His presence, all to no avail. The people just didn’t seem to remember that they were in shul. Chaim could not contain himself any longer, and he shouted at the congregation from above.
“What are you people doing? Don’t you see the sunlight? Can’t you hear the angels calling? The Shechina, the Mallachim – they are in this room with us right now!”
The group of talkers looked up at Chaim in shock. They thought he drank too much at the kiddush club. “Chaim, quiet! You’re ruining the decorum and spoiling the davening. Don’t you know you’re in shul?”
Next week’s e-mail arrived again on Friday. Though Bernie was in no mood for more practical jokes, something deep inside compelled him to scan the contents.
FROM: A Perturbed Mallach
TO: Bernie Goldberg
SUBJECT: Have You Ever Davened?
Bernie Goldberg. What enormous irony. For 36 years you have davened three times a day. That’s about 40,000 times so far. You mouth the words and sway back and forth, but not once did you sense and feel that you were talking to the Creator of the Universe. Every moment of tefilla is a precious opportunity to speak directly to G-d Almighty. Incredibly, you trivialize davening and treat it as social experience.
Tefillah starts with one premise. “Da Lifnei mi atah omed – know before whom you stand”. Try concentrating on this from now on.
I know you still think this e-mail is a hoax, but you will soon come to your senses.
Bernie took the last paragraph of the e-mail as a challenge. He was not going to be intimidated by a prankster, and that Shabbos he talked even more than usual in shul. Rabbi Cohen was particularly upset, and he finally pounded on his shtender and delivered a passionate drasha.
“The Shulchan Oruch[viii] states that if one converses during the repetition of the shemona esrei, ‘gadol avono meniso – his sin is too great to be borne’. This expression is borrowed from the Torah. When Kayin killed Hevel, Kayin remarked, ‘godol avoni meniso – my sin is too great to be borne’.[ix] By choosing this phrase, the Shulchan Oruch seems to be equating speaking in shul to Kayin’s sin of murdering his brother. Isn’t this comparison completely unbalanced?
Let me pose a second question. Why was Kayin’s sin greater than he could bear? The Torah never characterized other sins in this way.
Listen well, my friends, to what I believe is the very important answer to these two questions. Kayin didn’t just murder one person. Kayin stood at the threshold of creation and killed one quarter of the world’s population. In so doing, he annihilated billions of souls of future generations that would have emerged from Hevel.[x] Generally, a misdeed is fixed and limited, but this sin was almost infinite in its scope. This averah was so massive that Kayin could not bear the burden of the crime.
Herein lies the comparison. How great is the sin of speaking during davening? Imagine a delegation of subjects visiting their king in the royal palace. In the middle of the reception, one of the fellows turns around, and in earshot of everyone says, ‘Boy this meeting is boring. I wonder how long it will last?’ Or, he might say, ‘Do you know a good place to buy shoes on sale?’ This is unforgivable impudence. When kings were in vogue, the immediate response to such a lack of respect was decapitation. Now consider. The chazan is reciting the chazoras hashatz on behalf of the entire congregation. The tzibur (congregation) has an audience before the Almighty. A man turns to his neighbor and says, ‘I can’t wait for the davening to end,’ or, ‘Do you want to hear a good joke?’ Such irreverence is the quintessential act of chutzpa. It’s like slapping Hashem in the face. How great is the sin? It’s as great as the Almighty. Since G-d is infinite, the insolence is infinite as well.
We can now understand the comparison. Just as Kayin committed infinite acts of murder, so too is the insult to G-d (made by people talking during chazoras hashatz), infinite in its scope. Both sins are unlimited, and for this reason they are too overwhelming to be borne by mortal man.
Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller [xi] maintained that the terrible massacres of Chmielnicki (gezeros tach vetat – the decrees of 1648-1649, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by Cossacks) were a punishment for the lack of decorum that prevailed in the synagogues at that time. In Rabbinic literature it is reported that many synagogues were destroyed for this same reason.[xii] People often react to these suggestions with incredulity. ‘It’s absurd’ they say. ‘The punishment far exceeds the crime.’ Well, it’s not absurd at all, rabosai. Can there be a greater crime than hurling insults at the Almighty?
The Vilna Gaon expressed so well the tragedy of human transgression: ‘Tomorrow you will cry for what you laughed at today.’[xiii] Don’t you realize the magnitude of your crime? Don’t you recognize that by speaking in shul you are playing with fire?”
The people didn’t realize a thing. They waited for Rabbi Cohen to sit down and then continued talking as usual.
Next week, Bernie didn’t receive any e-mail from his heavenly contact. He sat down in his seat Shabbos morning wondering why there was no correspondence when a stranger handed him an e-mail. “This was sent to me for you”, said the man.
Bernie slowly read the e-mail and his face turned white. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. Here is what this e-mail said:
FROM: An Impatient Mallach
TO: Bernie Goldberg
SUBJECT: The Proof
Bernie Goldberg. The heavenly court is running out of patience with you. I have been authorized to reveal information that only you know, to prove that I am an authentic Mallach.
You have been praying recently that Dr. Stanford Bennet, the famous ophthalmologist, operate on your son’s eyes. Your prayers were sincere, but I have not taken them to heaven because you invalidate your requests with your incessant talking.
Bernie was stunned. It was impossible for anyone to be aware of his inner thoughts – only G-d or an angel could have possibly known. So Rabbi Cohen was not sending e-mails as a practical joke. Bernie sat through davening in a dazed state of disbelief.
Before mussaf, Rabbi Cohen stood to deliver his weekly sermon. His eyes were particularly intent, and his gaze repeatedly returned to Bernie, as he spoke with measured deliberation.
“We are about to recite the mussaf shemona esrei. This prayer begins with the standard introductory phrase, ‘Hashem sefosai tiftach – G-d open my lips’. Rav Yonason Eibschitz [xiv] explains why we make this request. When man stands before the Master of the Universe, one’s vocal cords should freeze in paralysis, out of fear. We therefore offer a special prayer that G-d should grant us the fortitude to open our lips in prayer.
Rav Elya Lopian [xv] underscores this thought by relating a story that occurred in Russia during the reign of Czar Nicholas. An engineer built a major roadway in Moscow. The Czar was so impressed with the road that he honored the engineer by granting him an audience in the royal palace.
When the man appeared before the Czar, he was so overwhelmed with fear that his vocal cords froze, and he could not utter a word. The man never recovered from the trauma, and he remained mute for the remainder of his life.
My friends, the Czar of Russia is not even a speck of dust compared to the Almighty. If the engineer became mute because he stood before the Czar, kal vachomer (most certainly), we should be unable to utter a sound when standing before G-d in tefillah. This is why we begin every shemona esrei with a short plea to Hashem that He open our lips.”
Bernie listened intently to the Rabbi. This time, the message hit home and he began to cry. For months he had prayed that his son Simcha regain full use of his eyes. Now he recognized that his prayers, interspersed with countless conversations, were meaningless and futile, and he had undoubtedly angered Hashem with his brazen chutzpah.
At the end of the services, Bernie slowly approached Rabbi Cohen. “Gadol avoni meniso – my sin is too great to bear. How can I repent?” he wanted to say. But his lips were frozen and would not move.
A few days later, Bernie received this letter in the mail from Dr. Stanford Bennet:
I am in receipt of your correspondence. I am sorry I have not yet responded to your request that I perform surgery on your son’s eyes.
I was moved when I read in your letter the description of your love for your son, and the unfortunate circumstances of his medical condition. I was encouraged that you have been praying to G-d that I operate on your son, and that Hashem should grant your son a speedy recovery. As a religious physician, I recognize that there is only so much that a doctor can do, and ultimately, matters of life, death and general health are in the hands of Hashem. For me, prayer is a very important aspect of my profession, and I daven regularly for the welfare of my patients. I would not want to attempt the delicate surgery on your son’s eyes without the full benefit of Divine support.
By coincidence (or so it seemed – actually there are no accidents in life), I have spent the last few weeks in your community, while participating in a medical conference, and have frequently attended your synagogue. I was deeply pained to discover that you converse freely throughout the services, and do not realize that Hashem views with disfavor prayers of the disrespectful. It was clear that Rabbi Cohen was unable to convince you to reform, even with his powerful sermons. I thought, perhaps I could encourage you to change your attitude through an unorthodox approach.
I am the author of the series of e-mails you received. Though you did not know who I was at the time, I am the person who handed the final e-mail to you in shul.
This past Shabbos, you stood in awe before Hashem for the first time in your life. I hope that you will not reject the lessons of my correspondence now that you know who I am. Please consider the following: If a real Mallach would have sent you e-mail, what would he have said? Might he not have written the exact same message that I composed?
I hope with G-d’s help I will be able to restore your son’s vision. I also pray that you will continue to see the light.
Dr. Stanford (Shlomo) Bennet
The following conversation may have taken place between two angels in the Rokiah Hashomayim:
“I wonder if Bernie will permanently stop talking in shul. Little does he realize that we were sent to inspire Dr. Bennet to write those e-mails to him.” [xvi]
“What about the people reading this story. Do you think they will take the lesson to heart and change their behavior without receiving a personal e-mail?”
“Some will be angry, like Bernie was at first. They will say this story is insulting and offensive. Others will just continue to ignore the issue of decorum. You know how hard it is for many human beings to open their minds to new ideas and make changes in their lives. Instead of acting with intelligence, they rationalize and justify even the most absurd and unethical positions. But many good people will get the message and will hear our call. Hopefully, for those individuals, this story will be of value.”
“We’ve done as much as we can. Now it’s in their hands.”
Notes[i] Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 151:
[ii] See Yesod Vishoresh Hoavoda 2:12 who quotes various sources from the Zohar that describe how the angels escort the prayers to the heavens. However, the Talmud (Sota 33a) indicates that the intervention of angels is unnecessary when praying with a minyan. The Zohar (which makes no distinction between private and public prayer) appears to not agree. However, to reconcile the Talmud and the Zohar we can suggest that the Talmud is referring to angelic advocacy (“meilitz”), which is not needed bitzibur. However, the Mallachim escort the tefillos to above in any event, even bitzibur, as described in the Zohar. In our story, we assume that Mallachim escort tefillos even bitzibur.
[iii] The basis for the suggestion that the angels are perturbed is the Zohar (Shemos 106b) that states that the two protecting angels mourn man’s indiscretions.
[iv] It is obvious that lack of decorum in the synagogue has been a long-standing problem. In the twelfth century, the Rambam rendered an amazing ruling and abolished the Rabbinic requirement of reciting a silent shemona esrei followed by chazoras hashatz, because the people conversed, and this lead to chilul Hashem. Some four hundred years later, the Radvaz reinstated the original practice because the congregants continued to talk, even with the abbreviated davening.(Teshuvos HaRadvaz 4:94)
[v] Chayai Adom 17:6
[vi] Yeshaya 1:12
[vii] See Ramo, Orach Chaim 98:1, that man should contemplate the greatness of Hashem and the insignificance of man before praying.
[viii] Orach Chaim 124:7
[ix] Bereshis 4:13
[x] This point is made by the Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5
[xi] 1579-1654, author of the Tosafos Yom Tov on Mishna
[xii] See Mishna Berura, 124:27, who quotes Elya Rabbo and Kol Bo, and Magen Avrohom 151: who qoutes Smak.
[xiii] Igeress Hagro
[xiv] 1690-1764, in his classic work Yaaros Devash
[xv] 1876-1970, in Lev Eliyohu, vol. 3, page 320
[xvi] See Targum Unkelos on Devarim 8:18, who indicates that G-d places business strategies in people’s minds. As an extension of this, it can be assumed that all human creativity is Divinely inspired.