My Word: Touched by the stones

It’s not easy to admit this, but my first visit to the Western Wall was not a great success.

Worshipers at Western Wall for priestly blessing‏ (photo credit: ISRAEL GALIS)
Worshipers at Western Wall for priestly blessing‏
(photo credit: ISRAEL GALIS)
It’s not easy to admit this, but my first visit to the Western Wall was not a great success. I watched people praying and I tucked a note in a cranny between the giant stones, but the Kotel failed to move me.
It was only five years later, in 1982, that I felt the power of those towering rocks.
I hadn’t planned to go, but a neighbor of my parents sent me on a mission.
His brother was a prisoner of war being held in who-knew-what conditions in a Syrian jail, having been captured in Lebanon during what was still being called Operation Peace for Galilee.
Knowing that I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with much easier access to the Kotel than he had from his home in northern Israel, he asked that I go to the Wall and pray for his brother’s return, and I agreed.
That’s not the type of promise you break easily, so a few days later I made my way to the Wall, no longer a teenage tourist ticking a religious-cultural site off a list of must-see places.
I had finished my own IDF service a few months before and nearly all my male friends were still serving.
I prayed for them. I prayed for my neighbor’s brother and I prayed for the safety of my own brother, also on active service in Lebanon. All of them were risking their lives to stop terrorists from bombarding the North with Katyushas and carrying out the atrocities and massacres that had marked much of the previous decade.
Perhaps it was the sense of purpose; perhaps it was the fear: This time it was different. I was surprised to find myself crying, for the first time able to understand why the Kotel was known elsewhere as the Jews’ Wailing Wall.
Over the years, I have gone to the Wall sometimes with a plea and sometimes to give thanks. Some prayers were heeded (that particular POW and my brother eventually came home safely), other prayers weren’t answered – at least, not the way I wanted them to be.
I appreciate what a blessing and privilege it is to be able to travel so easily to the Wall.
Earlier this week, I went there on a guided tour with a group of Jerusalem Post staffers.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but there is always something new to see at the ancient site.
We were met by Mordechai “Suli” Eliav, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. He looks like a prophet with his long silver beard, but Eliav is no prophet of doom. His vision depicts a bright future, a return to life at the place that saw so much destruction over the years.
Enthusiastically, he explained the excavations revealing layer after layer, and described the plans to turn the ancient paths back into walkways for future visitors. The idea is modern, but it would feel familiar to those who frequented the marketplaces near the Temple millennia ago. It’s the sort of thing prophets dream of, unimaginable to the IDF soldiers who liberated the Wall in 1967, allowing Jews to once again pray there after 19 years of Jordanian rule prevented them from reaching the holy site.
Some 11 million people now visit the area every year. Eliav has greeted many dignitaries. Jerusalem and the Kotel, he notes, outlast us all. Presidents, prime ministers and royalty come and go; the heart of Jerusalem will continue to beat when their once-household names have long been forgotten, says Eliav.
WE ARE taken inside the Kotel Tunnels by Miri Sack, director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s VIP department. Sack has obviously given the tour many times before, but like Eliav she has the appealing enthusiasm of someone who loves her job.
To understand the importance of the site, we have to go way back in history and understand where it all began, she says. “It all begins right over here on a mountain in Jerusalem called Mount Moriah.”
According to Jewish tradition the world was founded from the peak of this mountain 5776 years ago (minus a few days).
“This is where lots of the tradition happened,” she says. This is where Cain and Abel brought their offerings.
It’s the place where Noah came after he left the ark. The binding of Isaac took place here; some traditions believe it’s where Jacob had his dream; it’s the location where King David conquered the city of Jerusalem and where his son built the First Temple. That Temple was destroyed and years later rebuilt as the Second Temple.
Moving parts of a topographical map to explain the history, Sack shows how Herod in an incredible feat of engineering built a huge platform on which the Temple stood, today known as the Temple Mount, surrounded by four walls. The Western Wall with which we are familiar today is a small part of one retaining wall.
It’s not the first time I’ve visited the Kotel Tunnels, although every time I learn something new and see something newly discovered.
As we pass the tremendous stones, I’m struck by the thought that here, at the heart of civilization, I’m witnessing the exact opposite of what is taking place in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where Islamic State and the Taliban are trying to destroy the archeological evidence of other cultures.
In one spot, Sack points out the Byzantine arches and early Muslim period walls.
We stand for a while opposite huge blocks etched with a frame, a signature of Herod’s style. When the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem, they tried to erase this trademark. They not only tried to get rid of the Jews, they also wanted to get rid of evidence that they had lived and prayed here. Some things don’t change: History is written in rock, but open to interpretation.
There are tales of magnificent feats, but also corruption and infighting that entailed an awful price. The archeological artifacts show part of what was lost physically when the Temples were destroyed. The metaphysical, the spiritual link, can only be imagined.
We face the evidence of the destruction of 2,000 years ago, while close by a new tunnel is being constructed for future visitors and pilgrims.
When you stare at the scarred rocks of Jerusalem’s Old City, you look history in the eye.
Getting nearer and nearer to the site of the Holy of Holies, as the days get closer and closer to Yom Kippur, the one day the High Priest was allowed into this innermost sanctuary, has its own special impact.
There’s a sense of continuity here that you can’t get elsewhere. True, it’s punctuated by disaster and renewal, but then there is no life without birth and death.
We see the remains of mikvaot, ritual baths; cisterns; and the walls of what was once someone’s home.
In one of the halls where the dirt and debris of hundreds of years have been removed and sifted, there are now rows of modern computer screens. Here visitors can follow the possible paths their families took following the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago until today. The exact route is less important than showing the likely dilemmas they faced at every destination, says Sack.
Jews have always faced Jerusalem to pray. The stone blocks have been pulled down, defaced and rebuilt; the prayers survive – intangible but nonetheless felt.
Later we meet Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, in his pleasant modern office, adjacent to the Kotel.
He talks of the problems, and pleasures, posed by the presence of millions of visitors and worshipers, Jews and gentiles. Among the joys are watching people from all walks of life and from all over the world coming to the site for a significant, spiritual experience. Every hour of every day has its own rhythm and feel. Answering a question, he discusses the much-publicized presence of the “Women of the Wall.” It’s no secret he would like them to pray in the newly prepared “egalitarian” section, next to the Kotel but far from the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox and others who see their style as everything from provocation to abomination.
He also notes he has had to cope with groups who believe that prayers have to be shouted at the Heavenly Father, something that is disturbing in every sense for those engrossed in private contemplation or a family celebration.
(He suggested they return at a time when the Western Wall is generally less crowded.) The stones of the Kotel are a reflection of us all. I’m reminded of the belief that the Temple was destroyed because of blind hatred.
During our tour in the tunnels, we passed alongside the Western Wall from the side hidden from general view. Here a cluster of women swayed and prayed. I placed a note in a crack, and said a silent prayer. I touched the stones. The stones touched me. Here’s hoping that my prayers are answered, granting a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 5776 for us all.