Thursday, October 29, 2009

Praying at Rachel’s Tomb

Today is the Yahrzeit of one of our Matriarchs. Rachel - Yaakov’s beloved wife died on this day. I don’t recall ever celebrating this day in all my years in the Orthodox community. Not in Yeshivos. Not in Shuls. Nowhere.

And yet there people are being urged to show up today to pray at her tomb in Bethlehem. Over 100,000 are expected.

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with praying at the tomb of a righteous ancestor. It has been noted that this tradition was first practiced by a biblical figure. Caleb went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs to pray that his fellow ‘spies’ not sway him with their bad advice. So indeed there is precedent.

But I’m afraid that today’s version of praying at the burial sites of Tzadikim – righteous individuals - has morphed into a near Avodah Zara.

The correct way of praying at the burial site of a Tzadik is to pray that in the merit of that righteous person - God should answer them. But I do not think most people who visit grave sites to pray understand this. And yet tons of people do it every day in Israel. I think many people mistakenly pray to the buried Tzadik … as though he or she were a god and could actually effect things on earth.

The most extreme example of this type of activity is the annual pilgrimage to Uman by the Chasdim of Breslov. Thousands of them leave home and family for Rosh Hashana - one of the holiest days of the year - and travel to Europe in order to pray at the burial site of their movements founding father - Nachman of Uman. If I had to guess I would day that most of them in their ignorance actually Daven to the Rebbe himself!

Today apparently - the same thing is happening at Rachel’s Tomb.

Do we really need 100,000 people showing up in Bethlehem today? Are the prayers they say there today going to be more effective than if they would pray at their local Shul? …or Yeshiva? …or the Kotel?

If this is such a great thing to do, why haven’t I heard of it before? Has it ever been done en masse like this in the past? I realize of course that many people go to Rachel’s Tomb to pray throughout the year. But I don’t think there has ever been a call for 100,000 people to show up all at once. At least not until today.

This entire thing smacks of politics. It smacks of asserting our rights there. And showing up in droves to show the local Arabs who’s the boss. And to whom Rachel’s Tomb really belongs. Furthermore no one seems to be explaining the correct approach to praying at a tomb of a righteous individual. It is God that should be prayed to and not the deceased person buried in the grave. How many people really understand this?

The result of this kind of thing is that far too many people will end up thinking that it’s perfectly fine to pray to a dead person. And that borders on idol worship.