Blessed be the flight delays and blessed be the jet lag.
They made it happen — half the sweetness of my four days in Israel. The El Al flight taking off for Israel was delayed 90 minutes by a freak rain storm that descended upon Newark Airport, but nowhere else in the vicinity.
Which means I arrived in Israel 90 minutes late, at 8:30 a.m. rather than 7 a.m.
Which means that by the time I arrived in Ramat Bet Shemesh all of the morning minyanim were finished, save one. It began at 9:40 a.m.
I had never been in this synagogue and might never be again.
Technically, one person was the leader of the prayers, but the energy, the sounds, the real leadership came from the person sitting next to him.
He was the rabbi of the synagogue, facing forward. Even the back of him could not be seen, as his head was covered by his tallit.
His sounds! Sharp, piercing cries. Frequent outbursts of pleas and praises. Clearly this was not a person for whom prayer was rote. Just as clearly, he was taking his time, delving into each phrase, letting it speak to his heart.
Perhaps the prayer service was twice the length I am accustomed to.
Throughout, I wondered. What kind of person is this? From his unmelodious, anguished sounds, his sense of dependency upon the Creator of the Universe, I imagined someone severe and deeply troubled; I just couldn’t begin to picture the visage of such a person.
Finally, the prayers were finished, but instantaneously this man continued in Psalm-recital mode for another five minutes. More piercing sounds.
Then he turned around.
Mirabile dictu, his visage was warm, welcoming, smiling, gentle. He extended a hand, welcomed a stranger. As with my late teacher, Rabbi Ben Zion Bruk, the human inadequacy before the Master of the Universe does not allow a commensurate carry over to people, with whom only a pleasant, untroubled, embracing countenance is allowed.
Equally incommensurate to me was the fact that this man, Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenberger, is one of leading rabbis in Israel, a dayyan, a judge on a very well known and respected Beth Din, that is, a person who must put in countless hours in study each day. Yet, somehow, he is able to combine extended study with extended concentration and intensity in prayer.
Blessed be the flight delays.
Without them I would never have heard or seen this inspiring dialectic of sound and smile.
After some 18 hours, mostly in flight but also including trips to and from the airports on the way from Denver to Israel, my body did not know its schedule.
I arrived in Israel at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, went to sleep late that night, and then arose ready to go for the next day, Thursday — at 4:30 a.m. What to do?
I decided to take advantage of the local netz minyan in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Netz is sunrise. It is a halachic preference and a spiritual privilege to transition from the Shema to the Silent Prayer at one precise moment: sunrise.
I rarely pray at a sunrise minyan for several reasons. First, there is no such minyan year round in Denver, to my knowledge. Second, it requires a constant shift in one’s morning prayer schedule, as the time of sunrise changes daily. Third, in the summer sunrise is very early. But on this Thursday morning I seized the chance.
My whole day became different. I was buoyed, elevated, having launched the transition from the “redemption” of Shema to the “prayer” of Shemoneh Esrei in sync with G-d’s creation: sunrise. Environmental spirituality, if you will.
The next day my body knew its schedule even less. Again I went to bed late and arose even earlier — this time at 3 a.m., Friday morning. Now I was in Jerusalem. An adventure loomed. Why not take advantage of the netz minyan at the Western Wall itself?
So we took a taxi in the middle of the night, expecting to be among the few venturous souls who would arrive at the Western Wall to synchronize the redemption of Shema and the prayer of Shemoneh Esrei at the holiest spot on earth, from which the Divine Presence never departed, the destruction of the Holy Temple 1,948 years ago notwithstanding.
This time I was buoyed for a different reason. As the taxi approached the Western Wall, so did countless Jews, walking in the dead of night to reach the Wall for prayer. Then, upon reaching the Wall, we saw that it was mobbed! A few thousand Jews were there, on erev Shabbos, to prepare for their entrance into the holy day, the Sabbath, in this auspicious way.
If, two mornings earlier, I heard sharp, piercing cries from one person in prayer, here the entire plaza of the Western Wall erupted with every manner of plea and praise, chant and sob, quiet enunciation and loud pronunciation.
None of it was coordinated. Every minyan for itself, so to speak. It was very hard to tell where one group, one minyan, began and where it ended. How did this mass of people subdivide into the indistinguishable prayer groups that formed the mosaic at the Wall?
They all prayed in the dark. But very gradually the sky lightened, even as the considerable noise of the praying voices was uncoordinated, indeed cacophonous.
At the precise moment.
All sound ceased.
Mellowed into stillness.
The verbal Shema ended.
The Silent Prayer began.
It wasn’t the sky that was striking.
It was the hush that fell over the plaza.
At the precise moment.
Peace. Quiet. Yearning.
Each person with his and her own thoughts before the
Blessed be the jet lag.
Hillel Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com.
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