The other night, a classmate and I were discussing everything under the sun when our conversation turned to "shop talk": questions of doubt and faith, struggles with prayer and with G-d. We embraced in each other that we had similar doubts, similar questions, and similar theories about the roles of prayer and religion, and the ways in which they function in our lives. It was a validating conversation, and one that made me feel safe in the knowledge that we don't necessarily need to have everything figured out. After a week of thought-provoking and mildly terrifying discussions about the enormity of our career paths, that conversation put me in a place where I could enter Shabbat feeling confident and safe, even amidst crises of faith and identity.
I have never needed Shabbat more than I did at the end of this week. After long days of programming, tours, lectures, discussions, ice breakers, outings, and placement tests, we all needed Shabbat. Shabbat in Jerusalem is remarkable in and of itself; watching an entire city shut down at the sound of a siren is chilling. In the past, though, the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week didn't seem as distinct. This time, Shabbat was palpable. I could feel the energy of our entire group shift as the sun began to set.
We had text study and services outside in a garden on HUC's campus. When we were given the opportunity to find our own space to pray silently, I walked to a ledge overlooking the city. My surroundings were my prayer book. I prayed with eyes intermittently opened and closed, not sure whether to turn inward or look outward because both practices were intensely meaningful. There was something about being in Israel, in Jerusalem, and on the HUC campus that made me feel safer and more open than I ever had.
Dinner was outside in the courtyard, and it was delicious. But it was entirely eclipsed by what happened afterwards: the singing. The HUC pre-Ulpan group led a song session after dinner, and it was one of the best experiences I've had in Israel thus far. In our little corner of our table, three or four cantorial students sat close together, singing and smiling and holding hands and harmonizing. I hadn't felt that much joy since Hava Nashira. But it was different this time, because as I looked around the table I came to the realization that these beautiful souls would be singing with me for the next five years. I felt so happy and lucky to be among people who are as lit up by Jewish music as I am. Despite the stress and the nerves, I know I am in good company this year.
I was still riding the high of the song session when a group of us decided to walk from HUC to the Kotel to pray. I had never gone to the Kotel so late at night on Shabbat before, and of the three times I've visited the Kotel over the last two weeks, last night was the most remarkable. Though I have been there many times throughout my life, last night was the first time ever that I felt dizzy approaching the stones. The closer I got to the wall, the harder it was to breathe. That feeling of being small and overwhelmed is the feeling I try to internalize whenever I recite "Adonai S'fatai Tiftach" before the Amidah. But I had never truly felt it before last night.
I pressed my forehead against the wall and closed my eyes. I had approached the wall with my own prayers in mind, but as soon as my fingers touched the Jerusalem stone I immediately felt the prayers and the energies of the millions of people and generations whose hands and foreheads and tears and lips had touched that same stone. My prayer was no longer about me. It was about a collective strength, a collective peace, a collective healing. It was a prayer experience I will never forget.
As clergy we have many daunting responsibilities, one of which is to be an effective vehicle for the prayers of the congregations we lead and represent. Last night gave me a taste of what it truly means to carry the prayers of others on one's back. As I walked backwards, inching away from the wall, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and resolution come over me. I hadn't said a word of what I had planned to, but that didn't matter to me anymore.
Shabbat Shalom u'mevorach l'kulam.