I just returned from a one-month trip to Israel, where we celebrated the bat mitzvah of my eldest daughter, Maya. Israel is, in my opinion, the most incredible country on Earth. For someone like me who loves history, archaeology, spirituality, politics, good food, great weather, and spending time with family, there is no better place to be (apologies to the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”). Yet my time in Israel did not afford me enough opportunity to delve into its depth. I could, and probably should, spend a lifetime there to explore and understand that depth.
Since we traveled as a family, I wanted to include lighter activities for our daughters, aged 12 and 8, such as plenty of beach and pool time, rafting on the Jordan river, and making chocolate at a kibbutz chocolate factory. The one activity I did not enjoy was shopping. But I live with three women. My wife graciously encouraged me to take off for Jerusalem on the days when she and our daughters went shopping in malls near her family village of Gedera. This allowed me plenty of time in Jerusalem, a city I really love.
For a Jew, Jerusalem is the center of the world. And at the center of that center is the Kotel, or Wailing Wall, the western remnant of the Temple Mount, destroyed by the Romans over two thousand years ago. The Kotel is where Jews have for generations gone to pray, as it is near to the sites of the First Temple and the Second Temple, where ancient Jews sought to be close to G-d.
I must admit that, as far as prayer goes, my ability to pray is much like my “prowess” in jogging and tennis. Without constant practice, I’ve lost my skills.
When I first approached the Kotel, I was in awe. I also realized my prayers felt dry and rehearsed. I had asked G-d for the usual stuff (i.e., good health for me and my family, a good living, etc.), except that it felt like I was eating at the best restaurant in the world but could not taste the food. I sensed I was in a spiritual block. Before consulting a rabbi (there are plenty hanging around the Kotel), I decided to try to work it through myself.
The next day my girls accompanied me to the Kotel. As we approached the wall, I told my daughters, Maya,12, and Nava, 8, some of its history, though they both knew a bit about it from their Jewish day school classes. I decided to add a mystical twist, suggesting they each approach the wall and seek out one of its embedded Herodian stones, set in place more than two thousand years ago. I advised them: “Find a stone that speaks to you. Then open your heart and pray to G-d.”
After about forty-five minutes of prayer, we reconvened at the plaza. I queried the girls on how it was for them. Maya, who had celebrated her bat mitzvah ten days prior on top of Masada, volunteered “It was good.” She confided that she was a little anxious about starting the sixth grade in the fall. She had heard that the math curriculum was harder than fifth-grade math, and she was worried about it — and whether all the kids in sixth grade would be as sweet and kind as they were in the fifth grade. She was also concerned about the California drought and asked G-d to deal with that. After sharing all this with me, she broke into a big smile and then told me that she felt her younger sister did not really understand the difference between praying and making a wish before blowing out candles on a birthday cake. She had listened in on Nava’s appeal at the Kotel: “if you get me a pony, I promise we will keep it in the back yard, and I’ll be responsible for feeding her.” Maya and I both chuckled. But later that night I reflected on both daughters’ prayers. I wondered if they were the spiritual teachers I needed for my own breakthrough on praying.
The following day I approached the Kotel with a new paradigm, and suddenly, I felt like an in-shape athlete. Instead of merely asking G-d for the things I wanted, I realized G-d and I were in a relationship, and like every relationship, there needs to be communication and love before asking for things. Instead of praying for stuff for me, I prayed for the ability to give more heart-based charity and to be less judgmental and more compassionate. In the ensuing days, I noticed my praying was more fluid and deeper. I noticed something else remarkable. During my first trip to the Kotel, I had been standing in prayer next to a fellow who wore shabby clothes and, frankly, smelled pretty bad. Even in this most holy of places, I could not avoid judgmental thoughts about the man. Yet, gradually, after my paradigm shift in prayer, my feelings about this fellow changed. No longer did I view him in a negative way. He was like everyone else here, a person who was reaching out to G-d.
As I mused over this radical change in my thinking, I recalled a Reb Shlomo Carlebach story about a student who, after encountering a gruff and course person, has a similar paradigm shift. The student realizes that the person whom he had harshly judged was in reality one of the hidden thirty-six righteous people in the world. I am not so enlightened to know if the man I encountered at the Kotel was at that level, but it did make me wonder. It demonstrates to me I still have a lot of spiritual work to do.