By RABBI BOB ALPER
I was a visitor in my own synagogue. The first time…and the last time…that would ever happen.
It was the end of July, 1972, and I was the newly-minted young rabbi who had landed in Buffalo just a week or two earlier, in preparation for an August 1st start as assistant rabbi at a 1,600-family congregation. Sherri and I spent those precious days in a whirlwind of activities, preparing our apartment, acclimating ourselves to the unfamiliar surroundings, and most of all, hanging out with our brand new baby.
Four days before my career began in earnest (really, really earnest: I’m embarrassed to admit that I had actually bought a BLACK pin stripe suit to wear on that opening day), we rounded up an older baby sitter who exuded confidence, and headed off to erev Shabbat services.
It felt just a tad sneaky. Nobody except the senior rabbi and a few members of the rabbinic search committee knew who we were. We simply walked in with the others, took seats mid-point in the sanctuary , and settled in to participate. We realized, somewhat sadly, that given the nature of my career, this would be one of the last times that we would be able to sit together during a service.
I had a sense of the history and goals of the congregation, but saw this night as a chance to learn more about just where it stood in Judaism’s always-evolving approach toward ritual.
Here’s what actually happened.
Promptly at 8:15 the rabbi, cantor, president, and pulpit guests took their seats. A few words of welcome, and we all sang Tov L’hodot. The rabbi then introduced a middle aged woman, possibly the mother of the next day’s Bar Mitzvah. The poor dear was nervous, fidgety, glancing for support to family and friends in the front row, then back to her husband, seated next to the cantor. The honor assigned to her that night was the Sabbath candles, and as is the custom in synagogues from Capetown to Seattle, it took her three or four swipes and one broken match before she could get a flame going and light the wicks. Then, just as she was about to kindle her fingers, she shook out the flame and placed the still-smoldering match on the table which was covered by an apparently flame-retardant cloth.
Pretty standard stuff, I thought. Mainstream. Just like most other congregations.
Back then we used the old Union Prayer Book. The candle lighting ceremony in that book is particularly poetic, containing the lovely proclamation, “Therefore, in the spirit of our ancient tradition that hallows and unites Israel in all lands and all ages, do we now kindle the Sabbath lights.”
There I sat, relaxed, eager, contemplating my future role as a rabbi, intrigued by what I could teach this congregation and what it would teach me. My thoughts were, perhaps, elsewhere.
That is, until the lady sputtered though her assigned reading, and reached the final paragraph. I don’t think anybody else picked it up, and I hope nobody other than my wife noticed my combination of chortle and gag.
The woman made a small but significant error. Rather than the printed, “And now, in the spirit of our ancient tradition…do we now kindle the Sabbath lights,” she inadvertently changed one word.
Just one word. And so, what she declared was this:
“And now, in spite of our ancient tradition….”
(Rabbi Bob Alper is the world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand-up comedy… intentionally. Check out his CDs, books or consider booking him for your next affair at his website.)