Hearts of stone and stones with hearts

The Kotel is the only place on the planet where heaven and earth embrace.

kotel plaza 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kotel plaza 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"Once you have lived a moment at the Wall, you never go away."Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity.
Those who know me are well aware of my great love for the Western Wall, often referred to simply as the Kotel.
Though technically “only” an outer retaining wall of the ancient Jerusalem Temple, and in recent years a site of skirmishes between various denominations and religious groups, for many it remains the most sanctified of sacred sites.  This is in large measure due to its proximity to the Temple Mount, which housed the inner chamber of the Temple known as the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies.
During my frequent visits to Israel, I try to make the Kotel both the first and the last stop on my itinerary. Somehow, the special inherent sanctity of this place seems both the best way to reacquaint myself with the uniqueness of the Holy Land and to bid farewell to the one place on the planet where I profoundly feel that heaven and earth – humanity and divinity – enjoy an intimate lovers’ embrace.
Over the course of many trips to the Holy Land, I have had the chance to observe the fascinating yet curious way in which people interact with the Kotel. Some share my passion for its religious significance, while for others the Kotel is, at best, an interesting historical monument, but surely not a place of palpable holiness. I am not sure why the sight of the Kotel stirs the innermost chambers of my soul and leaves others sedate.
During my recent stay in Israel, I had the good fortune to spend an evening with rabbinic colleagues from across the globe and the spectrum of denominations discussing the complicated relationship between the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. Needless to say, there were many diverse opinions expressed.  None of us, however, even those who were most critical of the current government’s policies, could deny the miracle which is the modern, democratic “Start Up Nation.”
One of my colleagues, in a remarkably sensitive move, asked each of us to reflect upon an event or encounter that shaped our impression of Israel. A moment that forever made us Ohavei Tzion, lovers of Zion. Some of my colleagues were stumped by the question. They were unable to pinpoint a specific moment. For me, however, the answer was quite apparent.
When I was about 6-years-old, my father took me to the Kotel to hear the priestly blessing recited by hundreds of priests to celebrate the new Jewish month.  Awestruck by the power of the moment and the mass of humanity, I lost track of where I was and where my father stood. Terrified beyond belief, I began to call out “Abba, Abba, where are you? Please Abba - I need you!”
What happened next remains one of the most transcendent moments of my entire life and could very well be the reason I chose the rabbinate as my vocation. A man – a total stranger – softly placed his hands on my face and began wiping tears from my eyes. He lifted me into his arms and held me tight in an attempt to lessen my fear. He reassured me that I would be safe and then began to pass me over his head to people standing around him. One by one, these men – religious, secular, young, old, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Israeli, and Diaspora Jews alike – hoisted me until finally I arrived in the arms of my father.
Never before - and tragically never since - had I felt such a strong sense of belonging. This, I think, is what we mean when we talk about the notion of Jewish peoplehood. And also what makes Israel unique. It feels like the one place where we might actuate our Biblical and prophetic visions for creating a Jewish civilization. It is the place where we feel most strongly the idea that all Jews are inextricably bound to one another.
I was in the Kotel plaza recently when I noticed a large group of college-age Birthright participants who were standing together, arm in arm, singing the famous words of the Psalms with tremendous conviction: “HineiMah Tov UMahNaiim ShevetAchim, Gam Yachad (How good and how pleasant it is for siblings to gather, and sit together.)”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two haredi Jews eyeing the group. The men looked at one another and then without hesitation sprinted in the direction of the students. I braced myself for an ugly, potentially violent, confrontation. But instead the men carefully saddled up to the group and joined the singing. Frozen and in disbelief, I recalled a quip attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am an optimist, contrary to rational judgment”.
I continued to the Kotel with hope renewed. And then I once again experienced the feeling of being enveloped in a loving embrace. As I prepared to intone the words of the afternoon prayer service, I found myself unable to pray. All I could manage were words that I was required in my youth to commit to memory, the words of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook as he stood at the newly liberated Kotel:
“There are hearts and there are hearts – there are human hearts and hearts of stone. There are stones and there are stones – there are stones that look like stones, and there are stones which are actually hearts…"
The writer is the senior rabbinic chair of Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, MO. He is a member of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute and is spending his sabbatical as a fellow at the Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education.