By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Yehudah the accountant changed my life forever by leaving his desk for 30 minutes every afternoon. Confused? So was I.
In my 20s, on the verge of giving up on my childhood aspiration to become a musical theater actor, I found myself working a day job at a financial services company in midtown Manhattan to pay the bills. Yehudah worked in the cubicle across from mine. We were friendly but not necessarily friends. He was an observant Jew and, though I had grown up in a suburb of Baltimore where every house had a mezuzah, I had few, if any, interactions with Jews who kept Shabbat or ate in kosher restaurants. It seemed as if they lived not just a neighborhood away but in a totally different world than mine. And for a time, as we were separated by a thin barrier of translucent plastic, it was the same for me and Yehudah.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before I noticed that at 2 p.m., on the dot, Yehudah would get up from his workstation and disappear for about half an hour. Where was he going? Though our firm had a pretty hands-off approach to managing employees’ time, it seemed bizarre to me. I knew it wasn’t a departmental meeting and he took his lunch break earlier in the afternoon. I wanted to ask, but I also didn’t want him to think I was accusing him of being lazy or taking advantage.
Then, one day, a friend came to meet me in the city for lunch not far from work. After attending Brandeis University, he had become more observant. When we finished lunch, he asked me if I wanted to go with him to Mincha, the afternoon prayer service. There was no synagogue in the area, so I assumed that I wouldn’t have the time. But to my surprise, he told me that the service wasn’t in a synagogue. Intrigued, I followed him into a nearby office building. We took the elevator down to the basement to a storage room, where I was shocked to see about 30 Jews with siddurim in their hands, waiting for the prayer leader to begin. One of those Jews was Yehudah, who smiled at me before he began chanting the Ashrei.
In Parashat Pinchas, God details the regular schedule of sacrifices that the Israelites are to offer in the Tabernacle. The daily sacrifice, the korban tamid, was offered twice — once in the morning and once at the approach of evening. After the destruction of the Temple, the early sages, in a brilliant reimaging of this biblical ritual, decreed that instead of offering a lamb twice a day, we would offer words of praise to God, praying at fixed times, the same times appointed by God in our parasha.
The day the Temple was destroyed, Jews found themselves living in a totally different reality — one where they would no longer be able to practice their religion in one place, so the sages created a new way of connecting with God that could happen in any place. I had assumed, wrongly, that making the choice to observe the mitzvot, to pray three times a day, to restrict your diet, to draw a boundary around sacred time, one had to remove oneself from the everyday reality of office buildings and work schedules. Yehudah taught me that being Jewish in America requires exactly the opposite.
Though we might live in a completely different reality than our biblical ancestors, we can make a commitment to bring our faith, our identity and our connection to the Jewish people into the everyday experience of our modern world. And when we do, we are not separating ourselves from the society we live in. We are simply claiming our right to share in it without giving up on the most precious gift we have — who we truly are.
Rabbi Adam Roffman has served at Congregation Shearith Israel since 2013. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.