Over the course of the past month, as the sun began to set each Friday afternoon, casting a brilliant sweep of colors across the firmament, the sliding doors of various apartments would slowly crack open, giving way to a series of occupants as they emerged into the spring air.
With a prayer book in hand, each one put aside their daily concerns and worries, such as the anxieties of life under lockdown, and joined together for a plenum of the porches.
It was time to welcome Shabbat, and even if the threat of COVID-19 prevented us from huddling together, it would not stand in the way of a group of Jews determined to pray in unison albeit at a safe distance from one another.
There was the gentleman on one of the higher floors, an older man, who carried himself with a certain dignity, donning a suit and swaying softly amid the supplications. Several floors below, a teenage boy with tzitzit dangling down nearly to his knees, rocked back and forth with all the energy and certainty of youth. There were non-religious Israelis too who stood smiling at the scene, some of them clearly moved, occasionally joining in the bursts of song.
The designated cantor did his best to energize the worshippers, chanting all the familiar tunes that until just recently could be heard inside synagogues throughout the land but were now confined to batches of balconies.
He began with Yedid Nefesh, the powerful poem attributed to Rabbi Elazar Azikri, a 16th-century Safed kabbalist descended from Spain's exiled Jews. The words, though written nearly 500 years ago, continue to resonate, even more so during the current pandemic.
"Beloved of the soul, merciful Father," it begins, before expressing the soul's love-sick yearning for its Creator and offering a plaintive plea, "Please God, heal her now by showing her Your tender radiance."
With the participants spread out over a relatively large space, the volume of the collective melody was somewhat uneven, but what it lacked in audibility was more than made up for by the intensity of the effort.
Indeed, as the service continued, a certain mood seemed to set in, one that encapsulated the mix of emotions that has gripped us all since the start of the coronavirus crisis.
ON THE one hand, each of us was physically partitioned from the rest, unable to exchange greetings or even chat, yet nonetheless we had all been thrust into the same circumstances, the same bewildering situation.
Oddly enough, there was unity to be found in the solitude, a sense of shared purpose that seemed to span the separation and even annul it.
At the same time, while our voices merged into a symphony of song, there was still an intimacy to be found in the unison. Largely stripped of its social trimmings, the act of communal prayer, which can be rife with distractions, was reduced to its core, fundamental purpose.
So with a little bit of extra verve, we recited Ana BeKoach, the short paragraph that precedes the Lecha Dodi prayer, "Please, by the power of Your great right hand, set the captive nation free." Confined to our homes, for all those present the verse surely took on an added layer of meaning.
I never imagined that praying on a porch could be an act of defiance, a show of fortitude, faith and even strength in the face of calamity, and yet that is precisely what these gatherings were.
Amid all the agony and suffering brought on by the corona crisis, the glimmer of hope offered each week by this collaborative undertaking that brought neighbors and strangers together is something that will undoubtedly be related one day to a future generation which may find it difficult to fathom.
Though far from ideal in the eyes of Jewish law, the prayer on the terraces was the only arrangement possible given the restrictions in place, which it appears the government has now begun to lift.
I'd like to believe that for that month or two when we were compelled to welcome Shabbat from our balconies, our Father in heaven was looking down on His children and taking pride in their determination.
At the close of the service we sang Adon Olam, which culminates with a sentiment that was truly fitting for the occasion, "The Lord is with me, I shall not fear; my body and soul from harm He will keep."
And so, as the afternoon gave way to evening and our prayers soared heavenward, the disappearance of the Sun behind the horizon served as a timely reminder for us all: Every sunset is merely a prelude to the dawn that will most certainly follow.