Posted on September 30, 2015 by Dan Pelberg
Walking through Jerusalem’s Old City at this hour makes me marvel at how the place can get so loud and crazy during the day. The winding, dimly lit streets are empty enough to make me feel like a lone rat in a maze, trying to find any way I can to reach my destination, which is the only standing wall of the Second Temple, also known as the Kotel. I have no real plan for this adventure, as is evident by my clothing which I only now realize makes me look as if I just came from playing basketball at Gan HaPa’amon. However, a combination of restlessness and a seemingly insignificant comment in class the day before from my teacher Michael Hattin has sparked my journey this early morning.
The scene at the Kotel is calm, but it is this calmness that makes the experience surreal. While two elderly gentlemen sleep side-by-side using each other as support, a young Hasidic man reads from a sefer of what seems to be a Talmud, presumably beginning his day in the same way he will end it, in the depths of Torah learning. He is seated directly upright in his chair, shouting to no one in particular, waving his hands in the air, barely stopping to take a breath. Seeing someone learn with this much vigor and excitement fills me with a passion of my own and makes me wonder if I will ever have the confidence to study in such a way, allowing my entire body and soul to be overtaken by the awesome power of learning.
Finding a space at the Wall at this time of day is not difficult, and makes me glad that I decided to forgo the extra hours of sleep to experience this moment. Even though this is the least crowded I have ever seen it here, I still wander around for a place where I will have the most amount of freedom and privacy to have my own personal experience, a thought that I immediately recognize as a metaphor for how I feel about my current status in the Jewish world.
I spot an opening in a corner with the only person in striking distance being a grey-bearded man swaying to-and-fro, emanating a peaceful and serene look. It’s a look of confidence in his personal faith and spirituality that I can only one day hope to replicate. I pull up a rickety plastic chair, slip off my sandals, and take a seat, placing my feet at the base of the cold tan stone before me. Ever since my first visit to the Kotel two years ago I had the idea to sit and meditate here at this holy place, but was always too nervous to do so, never being able to find a space that felt comfortable. This seems like as good a time as ever.
As I start my meditation, I begin by focusing on my breath as I normally do, but soon thereafter begin to re-focus my thoughts on the Wall itself. I try to capture in my mind everything that this place means in history and in culture, and the faces that have come here before me and those that will come here long after I am gone. Crumpled up pieces of paper are bursting from each crack in the stone, each of them carrying prayers from those who hope that this place brings with it a particular closeness to God and a better chance of their prayers being answered.
While I may be getting more out of this meditative thought experiment than my previous encounters here, this symbol of the entire Jewish nation is still not giving me any form of personal religious or spiritual experience, which is something that does not surprise me in the least.
I couldn’t have expected it to be empty for long, and just as I am getting up to wander around, I notice the energy here has already changed. The large group of Hasidim scattered about remind me of local patrons at the neighborhood bar, knowing exactly where they are going and who they will run into this early morning. Dispersed amongst these groups are scattered sections of army soldiers and young children, both of whom roam about just as much as I do, looking for their own place near the Wall where they can fit in. Most of the soldiers couldn’t be less interested in the site, making it quite obvious they are only here out of some sort of obligation.
As I stroll about the area, I take a peek over at the women’s side where, save for a few women praying close to the Wall, the energy seems to be much more subdued. It reiterates the sadness I feel when seeing women underrepresented in these holy spaces, where the voices of the crowd begin and end with male figures. I once again think about the suppression of women in our belief system and the difficulty women face when attempting to overcome decades of such suppression. It’s something that I continue to struggle with in my personal Jewish journey.
Being in this physical space makes me think about its meaning in many different ways, and not all of them are positive. I often feel as if praying to any human-made object outside of myself can be detrimental to my faith and spirituality. To lose the sense of my internal holiness due to a shifted focus onto an external object means to lose a sense of myself entirely. Maybe that’s why as a Jew of the diaspora I have trouble fully accepting Israel and Jerusalem as physical spaces.
When reading liturgy, I often opt to approach the text with the idea that these places do not exist in our world, but rather, in a state of spiritual well-being. However, even seeing the words “Israel,” “Jerusalem,” and “Beit Hamikdash” always leave me with certain biases. On the other hand, I understand the significance of having an object that can be touched and felt, such as the Kotel. A symbol which resonates with people across the board serves a purpose to the community as a whole, even if it doesn’t give the individual the spiritual experience that they might be hoping for.
It is at this intersection of thought where my Jewish beliefs clash with my values of being non-judgmental, where Rashi and Rabbi Akiva square off with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jiddu Krishnamurti in the boxing ring of my mind, trading rounds with each opposing assertion they present. For the time being, it seems that this round is going to Krishnamurti, who rings in my head with the thought that, “If the mind is unconditioned, it is free.” It gives me the sense in this moment that utilizing an object with a label (and in turn, my own biases) in order to feel closer to the divine seems counterproductive.
I’m sure Rabbi Akiva will have his own rebuttal shortly.
As the night turns to early morning, the cold air is serving as a nice reminder that the weather in Jerusalem isn’t always as unbearably hot as it has been for the past several weeks. I have moved towards the back of the growing crowd as I continue to write my thoughts in my shoddy green notebook, all while having the anxiety that I will be yelled at by someone who believes writing at this place is sacrilegious, even if it is this very writing that serves to aid in understanding and cultivating my own Jewish beliefs. At the same time, maybe this fear is just in my head.
Many more faces join the crowd and a slew of minyanim are beginning to form all around me. It is just now that I am realizing why there are so many people here this early in the morning. As we are in the days leading up to Yom Kippur everyone has come here to daven the Slichot service, involving penitential prayers and the powerful roar of the shofar. Davening Slichot this early means we will all hear the shofar blast before most of the world has greeted the day, something that puts a smile on my face.
Several men wander about, yelling to call over individuals in the hopes of making a minyan of ten men before starting their own service. Seeing as I am not familiar with the Slichot service, I have no plans to join, but I can see that one man is desperate to complete a minyan and I offer to join his group, knowing full well that the majority of the service will occur too quickly for me to even understand. I give him a simple nod and hand gesture, which he returns with a similar nod of his own and just enough of a smile to express his sincere gratitude. It is a rare moment of communication without words that brings us together, even if only for a split second. While I go through the entire service without really knowing what is going on, hearing the sound of the shofar before starting my day makes me know that I am where I need to be at the moment.
The Slichot service ends and I linger to take in the sights and sounds for just a few more minutes before heading back to start a new day of learning. Just as I’m about to depart, a rebuttal to Krishnamurti’s argument surfaces from the depths of my mind, and it doesn’t come from Rabbi Akiva, Ramban, or any other Jewish sage; it’s something my grandfather made sure to tell me each time we saw each other over the last year of his life: “Throw me where you will, but throw me amongst my people.” They are words that at one time had no meaning to me, but have come up time and again in my head over the past year of my Jewish self-exploration. They are words that make me realize why having this place, this Wall, serves a purpose that is greater than the physical weight of the stones themselves.
When I stand in front of the Kotel I feel no spiritual experience or significance to me as an individual, but it is only now that I am realizing I have been missing the true essence of this site and its purpose. The last remaining wall of the Second Temple means more to those Jews outside of the land of Israel who will never see its behemoth stones in person, giving Jews from Argentina to Russia and everywhere in between somewhere to commonly direct their thoughts and prayers. In this way, the Kotel serves an even greater purpose than uplifting individuals; it serves as a light to Jewish people from around the world, bringing us together.