Remember those old ladies in shul when you were a kid? The ones who always wore sweaters, even when it was sweltering both outside and in and there was no air conditioning? (Note to the younger generations: Once upon a time there were no air conditioners in shuls, homes, or in a lot of other places.) The women who were always closing the windows because there was a “draft”? They were usually the ones always telling children in shul to shush, or telling their mothers to take them out so they wouldn’t disturb the davening.
I promised myself long ago that I would never be like them. Well, believe it or not, here I am, coming to shul with my shawl (although in all fairness, it’s really freezing in our shul on Yom Tov. The air conditioning works overtime.) and wishing the kids would go outside to play. It is undoubtedly a sign of advancing age.
It’s not that I don’t like kids. I do. Lots. I just don’t like them in shul unless they are old enough to sit quietly. And I get upset when their mommies don’t seem to care. I know they just want to daven too, but that’s no excuse for letting the kiddies run rampant, disturbing whatever dignity, tranquility and serenity we are able to garner in a typical Orthodox shul. (I am always amazed at how orderly church services are. No kids running around, no little ones wandering around with bags of food, no adults conversing with each other. The adults all seem to sit immobile in their appointed places and silently follow the prayers. Maybe instead of schmoozing, they’re just snoozing until it’s all over?)
I don’t mind if a minor, not-yet-member of the congregation wants to crawl through the aisles to reach mommy here and there during the davening, but every five minutes feels like too much. Mommies should sit in the last row, or in aisle seats. Or outside with their offspring.
Nowadays, I find that I, too, wish the air conditioning was set lower and the fans faced a different direction (not mine). But I do like my windows open. As wide as possible. Even if some warm air sneaks in. I find that fresh air helps one breathe. I suppose that newly constructed shuls take all these things into consideration, but the majority of shuls I visit are not newly constructed. And even those that are cannot possibly take all elderly Jewish foibles into consideration.
Then there is the matter of seats. If one has purchased or been assigned a specific seat, I am of the opinion that someone else should not sit in it. Or if its owner has not yet arrived and they are temporarily occupying it, they should be polite enough to get up when said owner arrives without an ensuing discussion of who was there first.
I like chazzanim who have nice voices and can sing on tune and who do not get overly carried away with their musical renditions. I am absolutely in favor of music and singing in shul, but as a form of prayer. If I want a concert, I’ll buy a ticket elsewhere. I also come to shul to hear Kriat HaTorah and I am very sad when it is neither audible nor properly prepared. Like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I like my kriah not too fast, not too slow, not too loud and not too soft, but just right. It also helps if the words are clearly and correctly pronounced and mistakes corrected before the actual kriah takes place. I know I am asking for a lot, and that professional laymen who are sufficiently prepared to read from the Torah are often hard to come by, but doesn’t Hakadosh Baruch Hu deserve to have His Torah read correctly? And if we can’t hear it, why come? Would any singer perform at a concert without first practicing or without knowing how to sing?
Yet we Jews have been coming to less-than-perfect tefillot for as long as synagogues have existed. Imperfect creatures that we are, I suppose our shuls are either a mirror of our own imperfections, or else they are a sign of our enduring love for our Father in Heaven and our desire to cling to Him in His temporary abodes until such time as His permanent House is rebuilt.
Once in shul, I try hard to ignore distractions and work on my love for my (sometimes-maddening) brothers and sisters. I constantly remind myself of a story I once heard. A man in shul complained about the children running around and disturbing the davening. A fellow congregant, a man who had survived the Shoah, answered, “I love to see them running in shul. I remember when there were no children left to run in shul, or elsewhere.” Amen, I answer in my mind. Even if they make noise.
Then there’s the story of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and the wagon driver who was greasing his wheels while wrapped in Tallit and Tefillin, reciting his morning prayers. Reb Levi Yitzchak lifted his eyes to Heaven and cried: “Master of the Universe! Behold the piety of Your children! Even as they go about their daily affairs, they do not cease to pray to You!”
I guess it all depends on how you choose to see things. Crowded or roomy, noisy or silent, warm or chilly, airless or breezy, orderly or messy, davening is always an opportunity to meet face-to-face with God as both an individual Jew and as part of His beloved family.
May the sound of the shofar and the noise of our children blend and lift our prayers up to pierce the Heavens. And may our seats in shul be the precursors to our seats in Heaven. K’tiva v’chatima tova!