When one walks into the Shabbat service of the Jewish Home Lifecare, it seems the rabbi and cantor are conducting a service entirely for themselves. The room is full of wheelchairs and walkers, canes and assistants. There seems to be little stirring, an eerie stillness. Opening with the Ma Tovu prayer, Rabbi Jonathan Malamy explains how we begin by praising God, then we petition God. It is basically praise and praising and more praising. It can seem that these words are falling on yawning mouths, hanging heads.
It brings to mind a meadow my husband and I visited in upstate Woodstock. A multitude of crickets, grasshoppers and other winged creatures were flying over the dirt paths. We quickly realized we had to be careful with every step. The grasshoppers were leaping over dandelions; others remained camouflaged. Any step could crush a living thing. Like the sweetest choir, we could hear the singing. A single note chirping in repetition kept the beat for the buzzing orchestra. In the midst of this random field came a wondrous choral offering. The song filled my ear with a knowledge of something. Something unknown to us. Something beyond this world.
In their book, “The Secret Life of Plants,” Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins try to prove that every leaf and stem, every flower, has emotions and responds to love and tenderness. The Kabbalah says that over every blade of grass, there is an angel whispering “Grow, Grow!”
Rabbi Malamy points out that in the previous week’s Torah portion, Jacob finds stones and lays his head upon them. It then says he dreams of a ladder on which angels are ascending and descending. And when he awakes he proclaims, “God was in this place and I didn’t know.”
After asking the congregation what they are grateful for and what makes them know that God is in this place, Rabbi Malamy returned to the verse in the Bible. The text says that the angels were going up before it says they came down. The implication seems to be that since the angels were going up first, they were on the ground to begin with. This leads us to believe that angels dwell among us — here on earth.
Cantor Rayna Green observed that the singing that day was especially celebratory. Picture the scene: During the prayer for healing, a man cries when he says the name aloud. W., too, was audible during the Shema and the Amidah prayers. A woman, confined to a wheelchair early in life, expressed deep gratitude for the pumpkin pie and the cranberry sauce over Thanksgiving. Another was following along, nodding, smiling at me. I know E. was self-conscious when she came up for her first aliyah to recite the blessing over the Torah. And R. was crying out from the back, with a strong soprano timbre. B. was also strong during the Adon Olam. He knows every prayer. If you listen you can hear, like the singing of the crickets, B.’s steady chanting.
D. was tapping her foot. Another woman borrowed my glasses and sent me a thumbs-up. A row of African-American women knew almost every prayer. Their voices praise God with an irrefutable conviction.
A buzzing of life and song when we allow it to fill our ears. Pages are being turned. Music is being absorbed into the hearts and minds of these unsung warriors. Words of Torah are understood in concepts and in phrases.
When Rabbi Malamy carries the Torah for each congregant to kiss, I see V.’s delicate arm hesitate. She needs a moment to realize what is being asked of her. Then her large eyes look up with merriment. Her own kiss on her own fingertips. The Torah is then brought to J. and to the Baptist women. To B., to D., to a Greek gentleman, to L. One man’s hand is shaking as he struggles to reach the Torah in time.
Providing our old friends and ancestors with a chance to kiss the Torah is a great privilege. It is a chance for them to intertwine with their ancient roots.
And, like standing in the grassy meadow in Woodstock, I have begun to understand how much life is teeming in this field of wheelchairs.
Dvorah Telushkin, author of “Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” is an intern at the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at the Jewish Home and Lifecare.