Knesset Speaker's personal op-ed: My first encounter with the Kotel

Our history and religion have accorded a special primacy and sanctity to the Temple Mount; nonetheless, there is something special about the Kotel.

AN AERIAL view of the Old City of Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN AERIAL view of the Old City of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 I am sure many will consider my choice of a special place in Jerusalem – the Kotel, the Western Wall – banal. But to me, someone who spent many years dreaming of visiting the Kotel and touching its stones, this selection is not banal in the least.

My dream came true the very day I made aliyah, some thirty years ago. It is difficult to convey the intensity of the first time I beheld the remnants of our Temple, but the experience and sensations of that day are etched indelibly in my own memory. And an amusing incident that occurred on our way to the Wall made the experience even more memorable.

After a reception at Ben-Gurion Airport and while still in a state of euphoria, I requested that we proceed directly to the Wall. The driver provided by the Ministry of Absorption was himself a relatively new immigrant. He drove to Jerusalem with confidence, but it then became abundantly clear that he didn’t know how to get to the Wall. “What ‘Kotel’?” he asked, when he heard the destination. Apparently and incredibly, he had no idea where it was that we were headed. He must have thought I was talking about a “cottage” somewhere.

I suggested that he employ the system in use before Waze: asking for directions. But this, too, proved problematic, as his level of Hebrew was not up to the task. I, therefore, opened the window and started asking around. As darkness fell, we reached an area that I recognized from photographs as the Old City. We drove around in circles for some time in a fruitless search for access to the Wall.

Finally, I told the driver, “Let me off here, and I’ll continue on foot.” At this, the embarrassed driver got up the courage to ask several young passersby for help, and they offered to direct us in exchange for a ride. As we drove, one of them asked me, “Do you happen to know whether Yuli Edelstein has already made it to the Wall?” I replied, “There’s no way that Yuli Edelstein will get there before you...” Finally, I was standing before this ultimate symbol of Jewish Jerusalem after so many years behind a physical and ideological Iron Curtain when the Wall was the symbol and object of our longing, our prayers, and our hopes. I can hardly describe the sense of ecstasy I felt, but I think my emotions that day were best expressed in the famous and stirring report filed by radio correspondent Raphael Amir when the city was liberated twenty years prior to my own aliyah. Accompanying the first IDF units into the Old City, Amir can be heard speaking into his recording device in a voice choked with emotion, “At this very moment I am descending the steps to the Wall. I’m not a religious person, I’ve never been, but this is the Wall! I am touching the stones of the Western Wall!”

That, I believe, is how I felt on my first visit to the Kotel. On the note I wedged into the cracks between its stones, I wrote my prayer that every Jew should be able to visit this site.

Our history and religion have accorded a special primacy and sanctity to the Temple Mount; nonetheless, there is something special about the Kotel. In the words of the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:2), “The Divine Presence has never departed from the Western Wall.” Throughout the generations and everywhere in the Diaspora, the Kotel has occupied a special place in the Jewish national and religious consciousness as the ultimate symbol of the return to Zion and of our aspirations for renewed sovereignty in the land of Israel.

Today, few sites and symbols have retained their status as pilgrimage destinations, formative elements of our identity, and a matter of broad national consensus. The Wall always has been and still remains such a site. God willing, it will continue to be for all eternity.

Knesset Member Yuli Yoel Edelstein is a former Prisoner of Zion; he previously held several ministerial posts and currently serves as Speaker of the Knesset.

This story is one of four excerpts from the recently published book of essays, My Jerusalem, compiled by Ilan Greenfield of Gefen Publishing.
Click here for the other excerpts the appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine