By Rabbi Shohama Wiener
There once was a famous Hasidic rebbe who was known as a seer and a healer.
So Yankele, who has not been feeling well, came to see him to ask his blessing. “Go away,” said the rebbe. “Nothing I can do for you, you are going to die soon.”
Yankele was shocked, and walked out, totally bummed out. Along came a wagon of the rebbe’s followers, his Hasidim. “Can we offer you a ride?” one asked. “Sure,” said Yankele, “but I’m going to die soon, so I don’t want to bother you.”
“Nah, said the Hasid. “Come with us and we’ll sing to your health.” So they rode along, singing and shouting “L’chayim , l’chayim, to life, to life!”
Yankele began to sing along. He cheered up and decided to stay with them. After they finished their business in the big city, they returned to the rebbe’s house.
The rebbe feigned shock. “What happened?” he asked Yankele. “I see that you are now destined to live for a long time. “ Yankele told the rebbe the story of the singing Hasidim.
“Hah!” exclaimed the rebbe. “What a rebbe can’t do by himself, a group can.”
We here at “Your Shul by the Sea” have such a group of Hasidim: they are our Chesed Committee, our Lovingkindness Committee, chaired by our musician and sax player, Steve Gottlieb. Every week Steve sends the Committee a list of people to pray for, a list that has come to him through requests from the congregation. The more people on this Chesed Committee, the stronger the power of our collective prayers. So if you would like to be part of this Committee, please send Steve an email; his address is listed at the bottom of your Calendar Sheet. As it is the New Year, we are starting our list over. If you want to put a name on it, or keep a name on it, this coming week is the time to do it. The mitzvah of praying for each other is surely one of the greatest.
Of course, our own prayers for ourselves can be the most powerful. Each prayer is like an “I.M.,” an instant message to God — but sometimes when we are troubled or ill, we need the strength of other people’s prayers as well, whether they are here on earth, or there in Heaven.
Despite what those of us learned who were raised in Reform or Conservative Jewish homes, Judaism has a long history of believing in not only an afterlife but also the power of our ancestors to add to the power of our own prayers. Many of us here, myself included, believe this. In today’s lingo we might say that their prayers are value-added.
The most well known of our Biblical ancestors who is sought out as an intercessor is our foremother, Rachel. Rachel, you may remember, was the favorite wife of Jacob. Rachel had only two sons, the first being Joseph, who became a leader in Egypt and saved the Hebrew people from starvation. The younger son was Benjamin. Sadly, Rachel died in giving birth to Benjamin.
Our earlier ancestors, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, are buried in the family tomb in Hevron, but Rachel is buried where she died—on the road to Bet Lechem, on the road to Bethlehem, a few miles outside of Jerusalem.
Jacob must have known that her resting place would become, like Jerusalem itself, a destination for pilgrims. Therefore, we read in Genesis 35, “Over her grave Jacob put up a pillar, it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.”
Ever since her passing, thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children have journeyed to the Tomb of Rachel to request her intercession on their behalf. The barren ask her help in praying to God for children. The sick ask her help in praying for health. The lost and the troubled ask her help in praying for release and relief. And, it is believed that Mother Rachel always adds to their prayers; many stories of miraculous results exist.
I was at Kever Rachel- Rachel’s Tomb, in 1986 and saw for myself that women pray there day and night, wrapping red thread around the monument in the center of the tomb. They then unwrap the thread and it is given away to seekers in exchange for tzedakah, for charitable donations.
We do not need to believe that special places amplify prayer. Nor do we need to believe that the only acceptable prayer to our answer is “yes.” Sometimes a prayer might be answered in other ways that might not make sense to us in the moment, or that seem to defy the longing of our hearts. It is the act of prayer itself, the act of reaching beyond ourselves — the act of singing our songs of life in all their joy and sorrow and everything in between — that can unlock the tremendous spiritual potential that is the birthright of each of us. And all the more so for a community joining together.
As we now prepare for our Yizkor Service, our thoughts turn to those names in our Book of Remembrance as well as those on the Memorial Wall in the back of our shul, and those additional loved ones whom we hold dear in our hearts. May we feel that as our prayers and the tzedakah we give or do in their names elevates their souls, so too they are longing to be of service to us — to be asked to pray with us, yearning to add to all our worthy prayers to God.
May we truly know we are never alone, and that help is always here for the asking.