In Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, I learned that 18 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word “life” and that when Jews pray to the ancient Western Wall they bend 18 vertebrae…
In Jerusalem in the summer of 2003, my 18 vertebrae bent toward the Western Wall. Praying to the wall had always perplexed me in the past, yet when I was there, nothing felt more natural. I watched the Hasids kiss the bricks as if they were the pale toes of God himself. Maybe they were.
The ancient Wailing Wall is the Wall closest to where the Holy of Holies once housed the divine presence of Yahweh, the Shekinah glory. Worshipping the Wall was like worshipping the ground God once walked on.
I wrote a short prayer in Hebrew and stuffed it into one of the cracks. I decided to give the wall a brief kiss, but when my lips made contact with the brick, my mouth refused to move away. My mouth to the stone was like a tongue to a frosty pole, but the adhesion was not chemical reaction. My soul and my breath were locked in a sacred and overpowering magnetic field with the wall. I was stuck, but I felt very happy with being stuck. I was not all that embarrassed either.
The intimacy was interrupted by a gentle tap on my shoulder. I slowly broke the glue and faced a stranger, an elderly man with his open hand aimed at me. He mumbled something in Hebrew and then stared into my eyes. He wanted some shekels. I would have been happy to give him some of my shekels if I had not been so rudely interrupted and I had no just given him ten shekels less than an hour ago. I was slightly frustrated and annoyed with his behavior. I looked at him and then looked back at the wall. I did not know what to say. I resorted to my natural tongue and tried explaining to him in English that I was in the middle of prayer, which I thought was already quite apparent. He shook his head indicating he did not understand, but kept his hand held open waiting for my charity. I reached in my pocket for the Hebrew phrase book. I felt I had to say something. He lowered his hand and began to walk slowly away. I flipped through the pages and then said out loud, “Chake lee,” which, according to my phrase book, means “Wait for me.”
He asked, “What?” in Hebrew and then I repeated myself. “Chake lee.” He acknowledged this and then walked away. I finished my prayer and then walked over to where the Hasidic Jews were praying in their tefillin and phylacteries. I started reading what I could out of the Hebrew Book of Psalms , which lies on a podium near the rabbi’s tunnel. I was just finishing Psalm 42 when the same elderly man approached me asked me my name. I told him, “My name is Daniel.” He said, “Ben?”
I repeat, “No, Daniel.”
Again, he asked, “Ben?”
“No, my name is Daniel,” I repeated again.
I was beginning to lose patience with him until I realized he was asking my father’s name. “Ben” means “son of” in Hebrew. I finally answered his question and said, “Bob.”
“Daniel Ben Bob,” he said, “Shem tov” (which means good name). He placed his hands on my head and bent his 18 vertebrae as he prayed for me.