• There were glimpses of wisdom, too, that made my synapses spark like pop rocks. (Getty Images)
I was struck by being surrounded by a warmth and embryonic sense of communal belonging that I had never felt before.
By
Samantha Selinger-Morris

21 Oct 2019 - 9:32 AM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2019 - 2:58 PM

I may not be the least likely person to want to attend synagogue, but I must be pretty damn close.

I refer to mundane moments of revelation – like managing a car ride with my three squabbling kids without wanting to knock their heads together like coconuts - as my “Come to Jesus” moments.

I don’t believe in God.

And my sporadic visits to synagogue have often been accompanied by a feeling of unease. Like the time when I was 12, and my cheeks burned with shame after a sharply-dressed middle-aged lady asked me to “close my legs”, when I was sitting on the steps in a synagogue foyer in a miniskirt and tights, with my legs akimbo. Or, when, just a few months ago, my son nodded his head at me in panic as he saw me scribble in my notebook something I saw in the prayer book. I had always thought that the hundreds of bible prohibitions against “work” on the Sabbath - which stretched to writing and even turning on light switches – were archaic.

Or at least, I did, until the other week, when I suddenly discovered that going to synagogue is the very thing that has been missing from my life.

There were glimpses of wisdom, too, that made my synapses spark like pop rocks.

It started in the lead-up to my son’s bar mitzvah, in September, when my husband, our kids and I started going – very occasionally – to synagogue. We were asked by the rabbi, who would be officiating my son’s service, to go 25 times in the year before my son’s bar mitzvah. We went four.

But in those four visits, I was struck by being surrounded by a warmth and embryonic sense of communal belonging that I had never felt before.

During one visit, the rabbi spoke about the congregation’s obligation to “help heal the world”.

“You can be walking down in the CBD, in Castlereagh Street – do you see the store of Gucci and Chanel, and all that,” he said, when I asked him afterwards to recount what he’d said during the service - “or do you see the homeless person who’s sitting on the sidewalk in front of the store? What do you notice?”

It was a message that I didn’t realise I was desperate to hear, until I heard it. To be reminded of the need to have compassion for others felt like a balm slathered over the burn of information – the reminders to outfit the kids for Crazy Hat Day at school; street parking signs that require the Rosetta Stone to decipher – that spreads daily across my brain.

There were glimpses of wisdom, too, that made my synapses spark like pop rocks.

“What makes a fire burn is space between the logs, a breathing space,” one passage in the synagogue prayer book read. “Too much of a good thing, too many logs packed in too tight can douse the flames almost as surely as a pail of water would.”

(This is the passage that I scribbled into my notebook.)

Surely, I thought, this paragraph could lead me to understand how to live more happily, if only I could figure out how I could apply it to my life.

A rule that I had previously regarded with disdain contained the very lesson that I am in desperate need of.

In a typical case of watch what you wish for, I asked the rabbi, a few weeks after writing in my notebook, just how bad it was that I had done this in synagogue.

“It’s not quite as bad as eating on Yom Kippur” – the day of atonement, and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when Jews traditionally fast – 'it’s just not a good look',” he said. “In traditional Judaism, that is not done.”

(Gulp.)

But – and here I argued my case – doesn’t the desire to better understand a portion of the prayer book trump a 2,700-year-old rule about writing on the Sabbath?

The thing is, he said, writing is considered “an act of creation”. And, he continued, “The notion is, that we don’t want to change the structure of the universe on Shabbat” – the Jewish Sabbath – “we just want to be with it. Just be. Just experience life.”

It was the ultimate penny drop moment. A rule that I had previously regarded with disdain contained the very lesson that I am in desperate need of.

And this is why I am now keen to go to synagogue, at least on Friday nights – when the service is shortest, and therefore the least painful for my kids.

The trick now, is to convince my daughter, who let us know – by way of storming away from the dinner table the other night - that she is violently opposed to it.

“If Moses was here” – her voice slid into a mocking, Valley-girl tone – “I’d say, ‘nice sandals’.”

My eyes bugged out.

I don’t have a solution, yet. What I do have, clearly, is a situation ripe for practising compassion.

Samantha Selinger-Morris is a freelance writer. 

This article is part of a new SBS Voices series ‘Keeping the Faith’ –  exploring how young culturally diverse people navigate and re-interpret faith, spirituality, family and sexuality in the modern era. To pitch ‘Keeping the Faith’ story ideas contact: Editor Caitlin.Chang@sbs.com.au.

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