Changing One’s Personal Climate
"I went to the Kotel and placed my hands on the ancient stones. I looked up to see the amazing height ..."
When you are a student with a pulpit in a small Jewish community for the High Holidays, you prepare very intensively. A spiritual visitor to a small shul never knows how much intense religious time the members will receive in the course of the year. My first student pulpit was in Easton, Md., on the shore of Chesapeake Bay. The community had a synagogue with beautiful windows in the main sanctuary. When I was there 55 years ago, I finally discovered what it was like not be at Congregation Shearith Israel for Yamim Noraim.
My position was arranged through the student placement office of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where I was studying. The summer of 1960 while I was here in Atlanta, I sat with my grandfather for many hours learning the melody of the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The rabbis of old decided that words of the Torah chanted with a different trop would alert congregants to the feeling for the sacred days. I prepared diligently and I had a wonderful private teacher. Rav Tuvia had mastered the entire Chumash and the rest of the Tanach in Kovno, Lithuania, where he grew up. From what he told me, he had some yeshiva boys from Slobodka working with him. He caught on quickly, and some of his children, my uncles and aunts, suggested by the age of six he had mastered all our sacred literature. Unlike many students, later rabbis of his time were not as expert in the Tanach field. In his papers are many hiddushim on Tanach verses. The hiddushim on Torah verses are in his sermons, especially the ones for Yamim Noraim.
Some of you may recall that during the mechitzah dispute at Shearith Israel, the breakaway minyan in the library of the new synagogue building on University Drive was led by Rav Tuvia. Since I was still at Emory and living at home, my father and I walked the “rav” to shul every Shabbat, carefully descending University Drive. I mention this incident long since past because my Zayde read the Torah every Shabbat at the age of 88. He also chanted Musaf frequently. As a child, he learned the nusach for davening for Shabbat and all the chagim, which he recited weekly during that period. When a compromise was finally found and the synagogue was whole again, he chanted the haftarot when it was his turn. I also recall him davening the Ne’ilah service once. I mention all of this because I carried his yontif spirit with me to Easton, Md. I was his first Yamim Noraim student since Simon Noveck z’l and Simon Glustrom in the 1930s. I mention this because I worked hard preparing to lead my first Yom Tov, wearing my white kittel and my Keds tennis shoes on Yom Kippur. I am indebted to Rabbi Ray Ostrovsky, a fellow rabbinical student from Birmingham.
To this day he is the finest baal tokeah (shofar blower) I have ever known. Many recall his father, “Cantor O.” Ray taught me to blow the shofar. A Jerusalemite by birth, I pray that Ray and his wife, children and grandchildren will be blessed with many more wonderful years.
Last year I accompanied my wife and some of the people where she lives to the Kotel. All those who came were in wheelchairs with an aide accompanying them. I do not have the strength to wheel her to the Kotel, plus the Kotel is segregated so I could not take her anyway. Today we just returned from the Kotel and I want to share my thoughts as to how this visitation went. I was blessed that it imparted to me a desire to find within the davening for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Torah reading and shofar blowing, and just being in shul a real grounding to do teshuvah and express hopes for 5719. Alighting from the bus as close to the Kotel as the police will allow, my wife, Rita, and all the others who came with her, plus the aides, were rolled down the ramps in their kiseh galgim (wheelchairs) as their large-wheeled mobile seat descended and offered them a view of the Kotel. I kissed Rita and made my way to the men’s side of the Kotel. This year two other male residents came.
I went directly to the Kotel because I wanted to spend all this precious time there. Initially we all heard the shofar blown. Minyanim were being completed which are followed by the shofar blasts as is the halacha for Elul. I went to the Kotel and placed my hands on the ancient stones. I looked up to see the amazing height of this remnant of the outside wall of The Holy Temple destroyed by the Romans in 60 of the common era. My thoughts initially were historic, recalling the men and women praying together at this sacred site in 1911, a picture snapped by Kate Goldey, a Christian pilgrim, from Wilmington, Del.
While I was at the Kotel in the men’s section, Rita had been rolled down to the Kotel as near as she could get. She had written a note to be placed in the Wall, a prayer for all our family and for the State of Israel and for our granddaughter in the Israeli Navy and our grandson in a cyber unit in the Israeli Army.
Rita has very deep feelings for tefillah. She started her Hebrew education at Rego Park Jewish Center in Queens across the street from where she lived. At Camp Ramah, she was inspired by chanting the tefillot there. She knew Hebrew well; at camp they only spoke Hebrew in that period. They davened every morning, and she experienced Tisha B’Av, which falls during the summer.
The Kotel is meaningful for Rita because she has fasted on Tisha B’Av annually and understands why the Jewish people were so sad for 2,000 years. Now Israel has been renewed. She and our family made aliyah, so for her the Kotel and all it represents is a dream come true. I know that last year when we came, it was most emotional for her. She placed her note in the Wall as her tefillot “went up to heaven.”
I am a bit more prosaic. I have different feelings about the Kotel because I am not satisfied with all the conditions at this “holy place.” Nevertheless, when I move to the Kotel as close I can, I too am moved by it. My philosophy is don’t allow the Kotel to become “trite.” I only visit the Wall three or four times a year. When I am standing there, I do feel renewed as I am sure many of you do when you come from abroad and visit the Kotel. Yad Vashem and the Kotel are the two most-visited sites in Israel, I am sure you know.
My “High Holiday juices” are flowing following my visit at the Kotel. As often as we Jews have been smitten by other nations and peoples who want to destroy us, we have survived and even risen to the heights. All of us are aware of the technological advances and computer successes we have achieved “for the whole world.” The newest miracle is the sale of the SodaStream company for $3.2 billion. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola knew they had a competitor. Pepsi acted first.
I am glad that I reached the Wall again and feel that a good year is ahead.
So Rita, with all the wheelchair partners and me, as an individual, went to the Kotel this week. Rosh Hashanah is only two weeks away. To G-d we give thanks for giving us this privilege.