Sometimes time and place converge and sort of become one thing. I didn’t expect this to happen yesterday, but it did. I went to the tomb of Shmuel HaNavi (the prophet Samuel located about five minutes north of Yerushalaim). He was a miracle child. His mother, Chana, had been married for many years, and only when her husband, Elkanah tried to comfort her for her childlessness by saying that his love and commitment to her should be enough, did she realize that she had depended on him to pray when ultimately no one can pray “for” you, or instead of you. She went to Shilo where the sanctuary was, and prayed silently. No one had ever done this before. When you hear your own voice, you experience what you say. What was the silence meant to accomplish?
The Arizal says that when you pray silently your thoughts are only your own. You can guard your inner life from the outside and its many voices more easily. Most of us find the outside makes its way in anyway, but at least the basic realization that Hashem hears your thoughts as clearly as you hear your voice seeps in. Eli, the high priest who officiated, didn’t know what to think about the woman who stood there seemingly muttering to herself. When he found out what she was doing he blessed her, and later when her miracle child was born, she named her little boy Shmuel. The Talmud describes him as having a powerful soul, one that gave him spiritual strength that was so great that it paralleled both the soul of Moshe and the soul of Aharon. His closeness to Hashem was like Moshe’s and his love of people was as great as Aharon’s.
When we arrived at his tomb just northwest of Ramot, the Arab custodian of the mosque that was erected over his tomb was coming down the steep stone stairs leading from the main prayer area to the roof. He had locked up for the day, and was on his way out. This is exactly where I wanted to take the girls, and he surprisingly and very kindly agreed to reopen the door. The girls climbed up the stairs. The mosque was constructed over an existing structure built by the crusaders. The stones must have felt the feet of thousands of people over hundreds of years. When we got to the roof, we found ourselves on a large structure with inverted domes. When you look north, you see Ramallah which is presently the capital of the P.A. In ancient times it was called Rama and was Shmuel’s birth place. A little bit to the right is Shilo which is the site of the sanctuary that Chana went to and from where she found an answer to her prayers. When you turn east, you can see as far as Yam Hamelach, the Dead Sea. Turn south, and you see Ramot to your left and Har Nof (the center of the world…) to your right. On a clear day when you turn a bit further to the left, you can see all the way to Chevron. Finally, when you turn west, you see green fields and Jewish yishuvim on the area that the heaviest battles of the Maccabean struggles took place. You see it all.
Shmuel could look both at the Land of Israel and at the people of Israel and see it all. He didn’t have a permanent home. He travelled throughout Israel, drawing people closer to being who they want to be. He suffered from their lack of understanding of how much of his identity was tied up with them. When they asked for a king, Hashem told him, “they haven’t rejected you, they rejected Me”.
The building is on a hilltop. Every enemy that wanted to gain a foothold in Yerushalaim stood where we stood. This was true in Shmuel's time as well. He, the child of prayer, defended them by teaching them to be worthy enough to remain on the Land, and loved them enough to rebuke them if he had to.
There are still people who care that much.
Someone once went to the Steipler gaon, one of the great luminaries of last generation. He told the Rav that he wouldn’t leave his study until he promised him that he have a child. The Rav refused, but the man didn’t move….After a while, the Steipler relented-he wanted desperately to return to his Torah study. The next year, a new question arose. A little boy came into the world, and his father attributed it to the Steipler’s blessing, and travelled to Bnei Brak to invite him to the bris and to give him the honor of being the child’s sandak, the one who holds the baby as he enters the ancient covenant. This is more than an honor, it is a profound gift with many spiritual implications. The baby's grandfather had a different view; he pointed out that many, many people had been praying for his son and daughter in law for many years, he amongst them, and that since his is the grandfather, he deserves to be the sandak. He asked the Steipler, “Was it really your promise that did it?” The Rav answered, “I felt immediate guilt about what I did. Who am I to promise a child? I’m not a prophet! Nonetheless, I felt the father’s pain so strongly, that I did know that I had to do something. I went home, and spent hours saying the entire book of Tehillim it was all I could do.” The grandfather said, “I don’t know about whether your pomise is what helped us, but I know that anyone who feels a stranger’s pain so strongly that they say the entire book of Tehillim (which takes hours to say) is someone I want bonded to my grandson.
These are my heroes.
Learning to love and to respect each other is especially important during the sfirah period between Pesach and Shavuous. This is the time that you have to be part of something bigger than you are in order to make the Torah your own.