This past Friday, Ramah Seminar participants went to the Western Wall (the Kotel) and walked back to our base, about an hour and half walk. Since the route back was mostly not accessible, Yishai and I attended tfilot at the Kotel and then took a taxi back to our base before Shabbat officially started. Since I cannot enter the Men’s Section of the Kotel, Jonathan agreed to help Yishai. He has written an amazingly beautiful piece about his experience. When Yishai read it, he started to cry and said “Wow, Jonathan understood that incredible intense emotional experience better than I did!” Thank you Jonathan for your beautiful words.
Yishai at the Kotel
It’s 6:13 PM on Friday evening. The kotel plaza is starting to fill in as I speak with “Chippy” (Yishai’s personal counselor) about timing and logistics. “Shabbat comes in at 7:15 so we have to get Yishai on a cab by 6:45, latest.” “Let’s meet at 6:35 on the dot, wheel him to the exit, hail a cab, and we should be fine.” “Where should we meet again!?” But Yishai and I are already on the move.
The logistics of moving a camper in a wheel chair through the old city seem to trump all other feelings that I might usually have at the kotel. With one eye on my watch and the rest of my body straining to keep Yishai’s chair from careening head first into the Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, I quickly maneuver past a group of Russian tourists, a requisite “have-you-put-on-tfilin-today?” guy, yeshiva boys, and mincha daveners. We find a nice quiet spot with access to the wall. Most of the Kotel is made up of large, rectangular Ashlar-style limestone, highlighted by chiseled raised borders, but we happen upon an odd shaped rock that juts out from the wall, no chiseled border, nothing rectangular about it at all, nestled among the larger, regal looking stones. This will be his spot at the Kotel.
“How does Yishai want to be positioned?” “With his face to the wall? Or maybe his side so that he can be closer?” “How will he be most comfortable?” “Oh, and what time is it again???”
Yishai begins to touch the wall, stroking it up and down, and looking around at the sea of humanity trickling into the men’s section as Shabbat nears. He is taking it all in. He looks up and sees all of the notes stuffed into the wall, overflowing onto the floor below us. I say something inane about how there are so many notes in the wall. He then turns to me as best he can and says, “If one day the kotel were to get buried, and many years later was discovered again by archeologists, from these notes alone, a new Torah could be written. Imagine how many thoughts and prayers are here? Psychologists could gain so much insight into humanity by reading what people wish for in this place.”
As his voice trails off, I see that he is not sure what to do. Not knowing Yishai very well (I work with only half of Ramah Seminar and Yishai is not in my group), I mumble that perhaps he has a T’filah (prayer) that he might want to say.
And then he begins to sing:
“בשם ה’, אלוקי ישראל. מימיני מיכאל. ומשאלי גבריאל. ומלפני אוריאל. ומאחורי רפאל. ועל ראשי שכינת אל.”
(In the name of the Lord, G-d of Israel. On my right is the angel Michael, and on my left Gavriel, in front of me Uriel, and behind me Rephael. And on top of my head is the Divine presence of G-d)
And then another song, ” טוב להודות לה’ ” (It is good to thank the Lord).
And racing through my head is the following thought: “It is good to thank the Lord?! This is what a boy who cannot walk well, who has many physical challenges, who cannot…cannot…cannot…these are his first words of his private conversation with G-d at the Kotel?”
But Yishai has turned cannot into a resounding CAN.
And as Yishai chants another one of the many Shabbat songs that we sing at Ramah, I begin to be convinced. It is hard not to thank G-d when you see a גבר (man), a true mentch like Yishai, praying with all of his might, making people around him smile, enjoying life to the fullest.
It’s now 6:25 and my mind shoots back to the logistics of “Operation ‘Yishai Goes to the Kotel.’” In about 9 minutes I’ll start wheeling him back, we’ll meet with Chippy at…and then I hear Yishai start another prayer. Straining to hear, I can make out various tunes from our daily Shacharit (morning) prayers. I hear Mah Tovu, the Shmah, and maybe even the kadish. At some point I see Yishai struggling to pick something up that might have fallen. I can’t see what he has dropped until one of the nearby men, a Charedi man with a long beard and side curls, comes over to us, kneels down, and picks up a “Shabbat-o-Gram” that had fallen from Yishai’s lap during his davening. And now I realize that I’m not the only one looking at Yishai, but that all around us people are taking note of him. They see him davening, moving back and forth in his chair, caressing the wall, kissing it, and singing every prayer and Jewish song that he knows, and I can only imagine what each person in our immediate area might be thinking.
With tears in my eyes, I see that Yishai wants to stand up. I do not know Yishai well and have never seen him stand, so I was not sure what miracle to expect at the Kotel this afternoon. As I later learn, Yishai can stand and even take a few steps, but at this point, nothing would have surprised me. I remove the foot rests and Yishai stands on his own, leaving the comfort of his wheel chair and placing his hands on the wall. He then begins to bow, a deep, low genuflection. Maybe he is saying Aleinu, maybe the Modim paragraph of the Amidah. He holds his bow for a few seconds, and then sits back down. Time has stopped for me. Time seems to have stopped for all of us praying at the Kotel plaza. We have been transported. Like Shabbat itself, Yishai’s prayers create a special place in time, and sanctify it. Tov Lehodot L’hashem.
As Yishai finishes, I wheel him towards the plaza. Again, my body strains to push Yishai’s large body and wheel chair up the ramp as we start looking for “Chippy.” I’m back in logistic mode…or so I thought. Running towards us is a young woman and I see Yishai’s face light up with recognition. He calls out her name and gives her a huge hug. After she leaves, I ask Yishai who she is and he explains that she is from his youth group chapter back home. He says that at the Kotel, the last thing he did was sing a song from this youth group, reflecting on the fact that he wishes he could see them in Israel and hopes that they will also have a powerful prayer experience at the kotel. And then, out of nowhere, he saw them. This truly amazes Yishai. As my mind goes towards a more pessimistic place, thinking back on how many people I have seen at the Kotel every time I come, Yishai offers a different perspective. “It’s like G-d was winking at me,” he says, as we rush to a cab and head back to our base to celebrate Shabbat.
And I think, Yishai, on second thought, I’m sure that G-d was winking at you, and what’s even more special, I think you winked back.
My last thought as I welcomed Shabbat was Tov Lehodot L’hashem.
A 5th year yoetz/social worker for Ramah Seminar