There is a touching Jewish custom to move one’s permanent seat for prayer during the period of mourning when one says kaddish for a deceased family member. The idea is to remind the mourner that things are different. Nothing is the same in the wake of loss. Changing one’s seat is a visceral reminder that things are not the way they used to be. It is constant mnemonic that the mourner’s life has changed.
But why change the place one prays? I believe the idea is that we pray as a community. That’s the reason we go to synagogue for prayers. There is something special about praying with one’s community. When a person in the community experiences trauma, the person is affected directly, but the community is also indirectly affected. A mourner has changed his place in the community and thus changes his place in communal prayer as well.
We are not, God forbid, mourning. But our community has been disrupted. This Shabbat, the presence and prayers of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah, and Gilad Shaer should have been felt in their communities in Israel. But since their kidnapping a week ago, their seats remain empty.
Jewish people pray as a group in synagogues, temples, schools, yeshivot, basements, office buildings, sports arenas, highway rest areas, and anywhere that a minyan can be assembled. Although we pray as separate groups, we also pray as a nation. This is especially true when we are united by a tragedy that we all can feel, and we all know our national prayer is for the missing: Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal.
At my synagogue, [The Shul on the Beach in Venice, California], we will be assigning three chairs in the front of the shul for our kidnapped brothers. These empty chairs will remind us that as a nation we are different than we were just 10 days ago. Three young men are missing from our community and we notice their absence.
It’s a small gesture, but one that shows we join together with students of Mekor Chaim Yeshiva and the boys’ home communities. These three empty chairs will not be filled until Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal take their permanent seats.
Their seats at the Shabbat tables of their parents will also be noticeably unoccupied. Perhaps, in solidarity with their heartbroken parents, we should set an extra seat at our Shabbat table. A subtle reminder that there are three Shabbat tables that are incomplete. Let’s tell the brave parents of these three boys that they are not alone. We stand with them. We give them our hearts for love, our shoulders to cry upon, a hand to help them cope, and an empty seat at our table for their boys.
Solidarity is a powerful thing. When we support others, we strengthen the fiber that connects each and every Jewish person to one another. The stronger our web of interconnectivity becomes, the more it can sustain our brothers and sisters in need. Help build that web. Help strengthen our ties. Let us bear the burden for others. Until our boys are back home, safe and sound, the most important thing we can do is console and comfort each other.
I invite others around the world to join us in a gesture of solidarity. Make a place for Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal in your synagogue or at your Shabbat table.
Sometimes the simplest things can bring strength are solace to those who are suffering. Sometimes a tiny gesture of empathy can make mountains into molehills. Sometimes a sympathetic ear and knowing smile be everything. Sometimes an empty chair can fill a broken and empty heart.