Selected Sermon/Article
2001-02-09 Beshalach by Rav Ze'ev Smason
A Shabbos of Silence
Have you ever been to the circus? One of the truly amazing sights to see is the big cat cage, where ferocious lions and tigers are held at bay by the 'lion tamers.' Did you ever wonder why these fearless -- or foolish -- men carry a stool with them when they go into a cage with man eating animals? They have a whip, of course, and a pistol, but invariably they will also carry a stool. It's said that it is the most important tool of the tamer. The tamer holds the stool by the back and thrusts the legs towards the face of the animal. Those who know maintain that the cat tries to focus on all four legs at once. In the attempt to focus on all four, a kind of paralysis overwhelms the animal. It becomes tame, weak and disabled because of its divided attention.

Jungle cats aren't the only creatures affected by this problem. We also tend to become unable to perform our duties when our attention is divided among too many things.

To better help us place our undivided attention on davening, this Shabbas has been designated across North America as 'Shabbas Tacharishun -- a national Shabbat that focuses on the decorum of the synagogue, and spiritual awareness.

Why this particular Shabbos? To heighten the sensitivity to the importance of talk-free davening, it was felt that one Shabbos a year should be dedicated by each shul to a discussion of some of the aspects of davening. Parshas Beshalach was chosen because the Torah portion read today includes the text of Shmot 14:14 in which Moshe allays the fears of the Children of Israel at the shore of the Red Sea with the words: "G-d will fight for you, but you must remain silent." Shul goers in many places are focusing on curtailing one of the greatest ills that plague our synagogues; talking during davening.

Sure, we know that talking in shul isn't the best thing to do. Some of us are aware that the Choftez Chaim said that a number of synagogues were destroyed -- that's right -- destroyed -- due to the sin of talking during services. We might also be aware of the statement found in commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) that if a person can't control his talking in shul, it is preferable that he pray at home and not attend shul at all. Why is it, though, that despite literally centuries of rabbis asking people not to talk, and clear-cut halachic prohibitions, that socializing become so embedded into Jewish communal prayer?

The experts identify many different causes. My personal belief is, is that one reason why people talk in shul is that many don't really understand the prayers. Individuals who can read the Hebrew, understand the meaning of the words, and have an idea of what we're supposed to be thinking when we say those words are an increasingly rare species. Lets take one example: the word 'Boruch.' If someone were to ask you what the word 'Boruch' means, what would you say? 'Blessed'? 'Blessed are you'? 'Blessed art thou'? What does it mean, when we say that 'God is blessed'? 'Boruch atah' means, according to the simple understanding of the phrase, 'You, God, are the source of blessings.' It's not we who give God the blessing -- we acknowledge Him as the source of all blessings we have.

People don't talk in a movie theater, because they want to hear every word that's being said. Can you imagine going to a 3 hour movie in Portuguese -- with no subtitles? It's not hard to imagine that within a few minutes, we'd be turning to our neighbor to chat. In addition to the monthly learners services that we'll be reinstituting here at NHBZ, where we'll focus on insights and meaning into the tefillos, I'd love to have several people tell me, 'Rabbi Smason, I want to understand the davening better -- could we arrange a class for you to teach us?' My door is open, ladies and gentlemen. The deeper the understanding and connection that you have to the davening, the more of a spiritual experience you'll have, and the less chatting there will be.

One other aspect of davening that I'd like to focus on is 'Kedushas Beis Ha'Kenesses'; the sanctity and holiness of the shul. Every person here knows, that a shul is a holy place. Many might not be aware that that kedusha carries with it a special set of guidelines governing how we're to act in this kadosh place. For example, did you know that while it goes without saying that loshon hara is prohibited in shul, the halacha prohibits levity and idle conversation? Idle conversation includes talks about secular subjects that are permitted elsewhere, such as business matters. There's nothing wrong talking about your investments, or how the Cardinals are doing; just not, please, in shul.

An anonymous letter appeared in a Jewish periodical a number of years ago titled "An Open Letter to My Neighbor in Shul" I'd like to read excerpts from it for you, that touch upon some of these ideas we've mentioned.

Dear Chaver One thing that disturbs me greatly is your talking during davening. At first, it was barely more than a word or two. But now, you begin conversation almost as soon as you come into shul., you might argue that you are usually talking to the man on your other side, and not me. Yes, that is true. But I also have an inclination to shmooze in shul. When I see you practically smacking your lips over a delicious interchange, I am tempted to join you...

The other day you asked my why I don't bring my 5 year old son to shul more often. I told you then that he is too young. Now, I'll tell you the real reason; he still feels the kedushas beis hamedrash -- the sanctity of the place -- when he walks in. Even after davening, he only whispers. If I bring him every week and sit him between us, I am frankly afraid of your example. How can he retain his reverence for shul, when he observes your behavior?

You don't owe me any respect. But think of our children. What will become of their davening? I see that you are already having trouble controlling some of your children in shul.

Maintaining our undivided attention throughout the morning services is, no doubt, a challenge. Studying the translation of the tefillos; studying the meaning of the tefillos; making a concentrated effort not to talk during the davening, and learning and observing the halachos relevant to 'kedushas Beis HaKnesses' will enhance our appreciation of davening, help HaShem to listen more closely to our prayers, and make an indelible positive impression on visitors to our shul, and those most important to us -- our children.

Good Shabbos