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Voices at the Western Wall  #788

07/28/2023 06:06:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Va'etchanan

Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. “Listen oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.” Deuteronomy 6:4

    Voices at the Western Wall

I have a uniquely Jewish question to ask you:

When you offer a personal prayer to God, or when you’ve had an opportunity to place a note Jerusalem’s Western Wall, what or whom, do you pray for?

It was an interesting question which was recently posed by a first-time visitor during our recent trip to Israel.

On Wednesday evening, as we gathered to mark the saddest day of the Jewish calendar—Tisha B’Av, the day that both Jerusalem temples were destroyed—she talked about what she experienced three weeks earlier at the Wall.

As she and her mother-in-law stood in prayer—even though her Hebrew is limited—she observed something deeply moving.

“I got the distinct impression as we listened to the prayers and the cries, that most of the women there were praying for someone else.”

A sick family member, or someone else in physical or spiritual pain. A prayer of hope for a son, daughter, parent, sister, or brother. A prayer for peace.

Although many prayers at the Wall are naturally focused on personal issues, a study conducted years ago, reveals that most prayers recited during religious services or at the Wall are dedicated to the welfare of others.

Every three years or so, when I travel to Israel, I am entrusted by congregants and others with dozens of notes to place in the Wall. Some spontaneously share with me the content of their tightly folded private notes, which are almost always written on behalf of a friend or family member.

This year, before inserting these private messages to God—as I always do—I placed my hands and forehead against the Wall.

I paused, eyes closed, and listened. And there it was again.

I heard a cacophony: The combined the voices of millions—Jews and non-Jews—who have poured their hearts into these same stones for thousands of years.

I heard the cries of those who have perished in battle. I felt the prayers and the longings of millions. It is that combined voice of millions—within the murmurs of those present in prayer—that always moves me at a spot where our Sages claim God’s presence radiates brightest.

Each year, more than a million notes are placed between the rocks of that sacred place, which once served as the retaining wall of the Temple.

For centuries, Jews were only permitted to visit and pray at the Wall on one day—Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av—so that they could wail and mourn over what they had lost.

That is where the original term Wailing Wall comes from. But after 1967, after the Israelis liberated eastern Jerusalem, it became known as the Western Wall—because wailing was no longer necessary.

I am keenly aware of this privilege each time I stand, reflect, and pray there. A recent survey of Americans of all faiths revealed that 61 percent of those who pray do so on behalf of someone else. I believe that figure is higher at the Wall.

As some participants recently reflected about their recent Israel experience, they noted that they were profoundly moved by their own connection with this ancient and sacred site, and the bond they felt with others who have—over the centuries—done the same.

And I was thinking today, in the aftermath of Tisha B’av, about a sentence that comes up in this week’s Torah reading.

It is not so much a prayer, but rather an instruction.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. “Listen oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.” The key word is "listen"—so different from "hear" that in English, generally refers to our ears. But within Jewish tradition, the word Shema also encourages us to listen with our hearts.

The great writer and theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, noted that within a world filled with so much noise and superficial conversation, the word, Shema, reminds us of the sacred duty to pause and listen.

“Jewish prayer is an act of listening,” he wrote.

And so, this week in synagogue, as we recite the Shema, we are reminded that within a sentence that is so central to Judaism, prayer is not only about our own hopes and longings, but more often about those of others.

For empathy is very much a part of Jewish life.

Throughout Jewish history, our people have often been controlled by those who have wielded more power and possessed more land—but we have survived, not because we have been physically stronger, but rather because we have maintained our values through one sentence.

It begins with the word “listen” and ends with “one.”

We have been taught by our parents and grandparents to be mindful and sensitive to the needs of others. When someone suffers, we feel their pain. And when they are elated, so are we.

We are good listeners, people of Israel. We often do so with our hearts, and our prayers reflect it.

Each time I visit Israel, I shop for a silver charm to add to the chain I have worn since I became a rabbi. Over the past 15 years, I have acquired a chai, a humsa, a Star of David, a mezuzah, and the words of the priestly benediction. I wear them close to my heart.

But the one that inspires me most is the one that simply reads Shema Yisrael. “Listen, Israel.” It is meaningful to me because my Hebrew name is Israel. The charm reminds me to be attentive to the world around me—not just with my ears, but with my heart.

So, this week, in synagogue or privately, we are inspired to pause for a moment and recite the first line of Shema Yisrael, which reminds us to listen and thus feel the concerns, the pain, the joy of others.

This is reflected in our prayers, and in the more than a million notes placed each year at the Western Wall. For as Heschel reminded us, when we pray, “The self is silent, the spirit of the people Israel speaks.”

Who are you praying for now? For I believe when we pray, we invest some of our being, our energy, our love in another. And in so doing, God listens through us.

Each time I stand by the Wall, like so many, I pray for those I know and love—but I also pray for the welfare of this troubled and imperfect world.

I pray for the healing and oneness of all of God’s creation.

And, as I press my face to the stones of the Western Wall, I add my prayers and your notes with the cries, hopes and longings of those, who have previously stood at that sacred space. They combine as one.

But most of all, I pray for the ability to truly listen.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784