I prayed at sunrise over Masada. I cried against the Western Wall. But my holiest prayer was in a crowded room in the hospital where my grandson is in the NICU.
About two weeks ago, Heaven blessed us with our first grandchild. Our grandson surprised his parents by arriving seven weeks earlier. Thank goodness he is strong and is getting stronger and stronger day by day. He remains in the NICU at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, until medical staff consider him healthy enough to move to his new home.
I spent this Shabbat in my yeshiva with our sabbatical year yeshiva students. Staying in a yeshiva allowed me to spend the morning in the hospital, just 20 minutes away. I walked through the light rain to the hospital just as the sun’s rays began to pierce the clouds and the early morning rain. The fastest way to get into the hospital is through the covered parking lot. The entrance allowed me to lower my hood and escape the rain, exposing my ears to the sounds around me. I quickly walked past the red-eyed people in the parking lot, hearing them cry or talking on the phone. One can only imagine the terrible news they received about their deceased loved ones overnight.
As I left the elevator in Shabbat mode on the eighth floor, I encountered a few fellow travelers on the way to the synagogue. The space was already filled with those who arrived for the sunrise service. With the others attending the 7 a.m. minyan, we went out until the first service could finish reading the Torah. At this point, we could “switch sides” like an elaborate religious baseball game.
Inside the crowded synagogue, we prayed. And what prayers they were.
I lived in Israel for almost 30 years and at that time had wonderful prayer experiences. Loved the sunrise over Masada in the shadow of the ultimate defense against the Roman legions during the Great Revolt. I recited penance prayers in front of the Western Wall with tens of thousands of people during the Jewish holiday season. Looking out over the Old City of Jerusalem, I sat on the floor on Haas Promenade, weeping in lamentation with hundreds of others. I rejoiced with crowds reciting Hallel prayers on Israel’s Independence Day and prayed with thousands of people who stayed awake all night in Shavuot and Yom Yerushalayim. But nothing was so holy to me as praying in this crowded hospital room.
Every type of traditional Jew was present. Chasidim and Misnagdim, Zionists who defended the prayer for the State of Israel while many others looked sheepishly around them while still seated. Knitted kippot, shtreimels and all other types of headgear were present. All prayed together. They all hoped together and, in a way, kissed each other.
During Torah service, a baby naming a newborn girl or a prayer for the newborn followed each aliyah. At the end of the Torah service, others lined up bearing the name of a loved one for the leader to include in the prayer for the sick. Each name represents someone who is fighting for their life. The air filled with tears. You could feel the prayers rushing through the clouds rising upwards – prayers of joy, fear and sorrow. Holy prayers shook the heavens. You can almost imagine the angles stitching the different words together in a giant quilt to bring in front of the Creator. “Here, O Lord, are the hopes and fears and sorrows of your people. Take them with care. Cover yourselves with the glory of their holy words.
As we finished, a sumptuous kiddush with hot Yerushalmi kugel awaited us. The person who distributed the steaming morsels said that someone donated the meal on behalf of a sick person. May the patient deserve a speedy recovery with the blessings pronounced on the cakes and pastries which filled separate tables for men and women, as is the custom of some Orthodox Jews.
When the grandparents’ visiting hours arrived at the NICU, I held my grandson, who was sleeping quietly on my lap under a warm blanket. I thought back to Victor Hugo’s words as I contemplated his premature little face: “To love another person is to see the face of God.
In the halls of this hospital and this little synagogue and the faces of hospital staff and patients – Jew and Arab, Chassid and secular, Zionist and no, I could feel the presence of the Almighty.
Two of the greatest sages of the Middle Ages debated the origin of the obligation to pray. For Maimonides, the Torah commands daily worship. Like the tamid sacrifices of old offered twice a day, the Jew is to offer sacrificial worship to God. A generation later, Nahmanides argued that God requires prayer only when the Jew needs it most, in times of great sadness or perhaps emotional hardship. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik has suggested that sometimes the two combine. During the daily prayer service, when the Jew is in times of suffering and work, the two sages would say, we are fulfilling the Torah command to pray. At Shaare Zedek Hospital, during the Shabbat morning service, it was clear that both interpretations of the obligation applied.
As my grandson and I rocked for the two hour allowed visiting hours, I prayed that the prayers of His people would also put God above. The halls of this hospital were as sacred as standing on the Temple Mount.
May God grant a speedy recovery to the sick, console the grieving, and rejoice in the hopes and dreams of new parents.
Rabbi Todd Berman is the associate director of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held many positions in education from high school to adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served there as a rabbinical advisor to the Orthodox community for several years. This essay first appeared in The Times of Israel.