Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guest Post: The Power of Praying Amid ‘Schnorers’

By: Yehoshua Looks (Originally Published in Haaretz 17:58 on October 19, 2011)

The kotel, the Western Wall, is one of our holiest sites. It is often visitors’ first destination upon arrival in Jerusalem, even before checking into a hotel. Since the destruction of our Temple by the Romans, almost 2000 years ago, the kotel is where we feel closest to the Divine Presence, pouring out our hearts in prayer.

Yet, at the most private of moments, we often find our concentration broken by a hand thrust in our faces, demanding money. How can one deal with such an interruption when immersed in prayer?

My wife, three children and I arrived in Israel fifteen years ago. After a year of visiting the kotel fairly regularly, my trips to the holy wall became increasingly infrequent until I was going less often than a tourist.

My Friday mornings were open, so I decided to start a weekly routine of davening neitz, a Talmudic tradition of Chasidim who would arrive an hour before sunrise to prepare themselves to pray the Amidah prayer as the sun came up.

I found a very special minyan (prayer group) that gathers in the front of the kotel next to the divide separating the men’s and women’s sections. The minyan is led by Rav Yohanan Weingarten. He took over the minyan from his father of blessed memory, Rav Yisrael Weingarten, whose recitation of the Shema was a transcendent experience I shall never forget.

My kotel prayers were imbued with an unprecedented level of concentration, inspired by the place and time. However, my focus was often broken by regular interruptions from local schnorers. Ignoring them wasn’t an option, and getting annoyed was certainly not befitting of the holy place.

I had no choice but to accommodate them, a decision that turned out to be more beneficial than I ever could have imagined.

Offering tzedaka, which is often mistranslated as meaning charity, is by definition, righteousness, a benefit more for the giver than the receiver. Maimonodes, in his “Laws of Tzedaka”, prescribes giving multiple small gifts instead of a single large one because it accustoms a person to giving, in emulation of the Creator.

I began collecting half shekel coins for Friday morning. Upon arrival at the kotel, I carefully lay out a stack of them on the table by my regular spot of prayer.

Week in, week out, the regular group comes to collect tzedaka. I now recognize each of them, and in the brief encounter of passing coin to palm we connect, grateful for that moment.

Some give me a blessing, while others give myrtle, mint and sage, my kotel spices that I use for the Havdala prayer after Shabbat.

Prayer is about relationship, and my small acts of tzedaka are a constant reminder of how fortunate I am and how much the Creator has provided me.

Tzedaka has become an essential part of my kotel experience; It is incorporated into my prayer and as I pass the coin over to a needy open palm, my concentration is enhanced by the act of giving
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship. This was republished with permission of the author.

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