Shaliach Tzibbur: On Being a Public Messenger
Rabbi Nir Koren is a shaliach (emissary) of OTS’s Straus-Amiel institute who previously served as rabbi of Monterrey and Cancun, Mexico; Cali, Columbia; and Quito, Ecuador. He and his family are currently working in Ottawa, Canada.
Since I was a child, I have been a “shaliach tzibbur” (literally: a public messenger), standing in front of the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) and praying on behalf of the congregation on the “yamim noraim” (literally: “the terrible days”, referring to the High Holidays). At first I filled this position as chazan, as cantor. Later as a community leader, as a rabbi.
The prayer that begins the High Holiday Mussaf service begins with the cantor’s heartfelt words: ” Here I am, poor in deeds, trembling in fear in front of the Holy One of Israel. I came here before You to plead on behalf of Your people, who sent me, although I am hardly worthy of the task.”
And there, in front of the open ark, one feels the burden of leading the congregation; you feel that you have to be an advocate of honesty on me and “on behalf of Your people who sent me.”
This year, after so many years, I felt some relief that I didn’t have to be a public messenger. This year, Rosh Hashanah passed and also Yom Kippur, and the burden was lifted from me.
But immediately after, at the end of Sukkot, the truly terrible days began. The days when we understood who would live and who would die, who would fight, who would be tormented.
And suddenly, our hearts became a void in our chest, a pain of bereavement and shame. How did we get so far away from each other?
“But we are guilty for our brother, we saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” (Genesis 42:21).
Tomorrow, I will get on a plane to Israel, but my story is not as important as the story of the people of Israel.
The land of Israel does not only belong to the Jews in Israel, it belongs to all of us. This shared fate makes us all not only shed a tear with our brothers, the whole House of Israel, but to understand that no Jew is safe from hatred.
Today, after my wife shared a request for some equipment donation on behalf of the unit I’m supposed to join, I understood for the first time what it means to be a shaliach tzibbur. I’ve only been in this amazing community for a month; I didn’t even expect that there would be an answer, because this time I know that I’m truly “poor in deeds”. I didn’t do anything to earn the love and trust of the community.
I was convinced that after only a month in this new job, the obvious response from the community would be that I am bound by the contract I signed and must remain. And here I received a lesson in true leadership, a lesson in sensitivity, where Risa, the director of Tamir, spoke not only of community inclusion of people with special needs, as is the program’s mandate – but also to ask with kindness, “what can I do for you and your family? How can I help?”
Then suddenly I realized, I am not the story, but the public is. For several hours the recurring miracle occurred since the establishment of the mishkan, the tabernacle: the people simply rose above their leaders.
It is not the messenger, it is the public who does the work, and which is filling the tabernacle with content, spirit, and equipment that is used far beyond fighting.
I am bringing with me to Israel a delivery that was so lovingly chosen, prepared and packed, and which received a loving caress from the mothers of the community as if they were dressing their child before going out during the frozen winter.
I am also bringing with me letters written with innocence equal to thousands of prayers, letters that will elevate souls in difficult times.
I suddenly realized how the little me, with no intention whatsoever, became a public messenger again – except that this time I have no sense of burden on my shoulders. This time I understand that the messenger is carried and raised on the public´s shoulders, making the way a lot easier for him.
This time I will wear the IDF army uniform and not the kittel, but I will do it with holy awe. And I will pray with great intent that today, our Father on Heaven will serve justice.