Prayers float up for the Rebbe’s care
March 17, 2000
IT IS hard to imagine there could be so many prayers in the world.
Mountains of prayers, paper mountains. I stood beside the grave of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, tore my prayer into fragments and let them flutter on to the mountain.
Overhead, it was midnight and the landing lights of a 747 thundered on a flightpath to Kennedy airport, less than a mile away. The lips of many of the people there, 40 or more, moved as they spoke their prayers aloud, but I could not hear their whispers above the jet’s roar.
I found myself wondering if the passengers in the aircraft were touched by the prayers as they floated up. Whether their own prayers for a safe landing were added to the pleas from the holy graveside below . . . I had often heard of the Rebbe’s grave and the custom of entrusting prayers to his safekeeping.
I had not realised how many, how very many prayers there could be, or that they fell in a ragged blizzard on the grave every hour of the day, every day of the year.
‘‘They come by fax,’’ my friend, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, told me. ‘‘They come by email and they are phoned in, dictated to secretaries. They are sent from every town and city where Jews have settled, and they are being brought personally right this minute.
‘‘Even as we’re sitting here at . . .’’ he checked his watch . . . ‘‘10.45pm. We could go there now, get there at midnight, and there would be dozens of people with their prayers, writing them down then tearing them up.’’ Naturally, I did not quite believe him. And so, naturally, he had to prove it.
Before we entered the cemetery we saw a billboard, and from the billboard the Rebbe’s vast image looked down. Beside his face I read the words, ‘‘Let’s welcome Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness.’’ Many in the Lubavitch movement he led from the early Fifties until his death in June 1992 believe the Rebbe was the Messiah himself, and that he will return to redeem Israel. At a Chabad house on the outskirts of the Old Montefiore Cemetery, we joined more than 20 people who had already begun their prayers.
One room has been turned into a synagogue, containing a sefer Torah in a seven-foot steel safe. Videos play of the Rebbe speaking, smiling, praying, moving with the gentle grace and acceptance of God’s will that has struck me in other saintly people: Yehudi Menuhin, for instance, and Dadi Janki.
I watched one screen as the Rebbe handed out hundreds of dollar bills to a congregation, a gesture he often made to remind his followers to give generously and without question. Stacks of unlined paper were placed all over the house, with bundles of candles. We took a candle each to light beside the grave and wrote down prayers for kivitlach, for the Rebbe’s holy power to intercede with God for us. The walk is perhaps 100 yards to the mausoleum and there seemed to be gentiles there as well as Jews.
Shmuley whispered that the Rebbe touched so many lives, Reform as well as Orthodox, Christian and Muslim and atheist . . . especially atheist. It is said that an unbeliever cannot help but weep beside the Rebbe’s grave. We took off our shoes and walked into a stone hut lit by candles.
We lit ours too, and approached the burial place of Rabbi Schneerson and the man who was the Lubavitcher Rebbe before him also named Rabbi Schneerson. Their tombstones were magnificent, but what made me gasp was the truckload of shredded paper mounded over the grave. The walls around it were three feet high and the fragments were overflowing.
They had been packed down hard but still thousands were in danger of fluttering over the floor. ‘‘What happens to them? Are they just left there to decompose?’’ I asked. ‘‘Decompose? The whole cemetery would disappear under paper,’’ Shmuley replied. ‘‘Every two or three days, the grave is cleared and the prayers are incinerated.’’ ‘‘And do many people say their prayers are answered?’’ ‘‘Businessman. Teachers, Parents. Lovers. Widows. The sick, the old, the guilty, everybody. Even those who don’t believe. Especially those who don’t believe.
So many people have attested to his power anyone who doubts this is real, they’re just deluding themselves.’’ Shmuley was getting excitable, and people were starting to recognise him after his appearances on Larry King and half the world’s other TV shows this year, it would be a surprise to find a Jew who doesn’t know his face and his voice. I walked up to the grave and recited my prayer. Then I tore it in strips and let them fall.
The woman at my side was weeping. I could not hear her, because the 747 was overhead, but I saw her shoulders shaking. She was alone. I looked away, and wondered if I should offer a word of comfort. When I turned back she was smiling. Holding out her hands to the grave and smiling. Then she slipped out of the mausoleum.
And I knew another prayer had been answered.
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