Ascending the steps to the roof, I turned to my Israeli host and asked; “Are the services up there?” The roof that I was heading for was high on a hillside in Tzfat, and I was preparing to invite in Shabbat just as the medieval Kabbalists had done centuries before me. As we reached the top of the stairs and Mt. Meron came into view, my host responded to my question with assurances of “don’t worry” and “they have them all over the building.” I knew with certainty that there weren’t Shabbat services in other locations in the building, leading me to repeat my initial question. Once again, my host tried to quell my questioning with “it’s ok” and “if you need them, you can just go back downstairs.” It quickly became clear that we were having two different conversations. A direct Hebrew translation of the word “services” is sheirutim, the common Hebrew word that is used for “restroom.” Looking back, it only makes sense that my quest for a Shabbat worship experience was misinterpreted as a curiosity over the location of a toilet. Considering my host’s limited English and my even more limited Hebrew at the time, I now know that the word that would have spared all of the confusion had I used it, is t’filah meaning “prayer.”
Along with giving my host and I something to laugh about for the rest of the night, this linguistic mishap of ours sparked my interest in the intricacies of the Hebrew language; particularly related to prayer vocabulary. When I think about the word avodah whose translations include “work,” “service,” and “prayer,” I am brought back to the inherent connection that exists between “service” and “prayer.” The Yom Kippur Avodah service links us to the penitential practices of the High Priest during Second Temple times; a type of divine service connecting the Priest and God. As someone that grew up in the Reform movement, the Avodah service never played a significant role in my Yom Kippur experience. While I am fascinated by ancient Jewish history, I feel no nostalgia when it comes to sacrificial rites. Therefore, when reflecting on the Avodah service’s relevance to my life, I find myself wondering what this idea of “service” means in our modern Jewish lives? When we talk about going to services today, do we think that our prayers and actions during worship are carried out to serve the Divine? Is our presence at synagogue serving other people, perhaps the community as a whole? Or, are we expecting our worship experiences to serve us in some way?
People attend services for a range of reasons. For some, the synagogue is primarily a beit knesset - a house of assembly. The beit knesset serves as an environment where people can schmooze with their friends who they don’t get to see throughout the week, or as the place where they can feel supported when otherwise lonely. There are others for whom the synagogue is first and foremost a beit t’filah - a house of prayer. Someone might go to their synagogue to say their required prayers and then leave, their only communication being the words that they directed toward the Divine. Both of these models combine “prayer” with “service,” and in both of them, people are engaging with their Jewish identities. As we ponder these different meanings, we find that at times we connect to aspects of each. For many of us, being in a synagogue environment allows us to feel like a part of a community while still having the time and space for our own prayers. The community around us serves as our support system to put us in the right mindset to engage in our personal prayer experiences.
In turn, perhaps our presence will do the same for someone else.