Wednesday, December 5, 2012


“Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”

—Isaiah 6.3


I traced the ancient fingerprints in the slickness of the massive stones.  Here a man had borne longing.  Here a son had borne the same.  Here a son’s son also.  I bowed my head against the stones, adding a miniscule amount of yearning’s tangible trace to the stones long slick with prayer.  There was something poignant about praying into a wall, about acting on hope while facing futility, especially considering that this was where a peculiar people had literally done so for almost two thousands of years—it was here that they had come to pulse prayers through their fingertips, and here to store their wails and why within the stone; and here that they had told a history of exile in the silent glaze of once rough lime, the color of old Torah scrolls; it was here to this very spot that they had come, because there was no closer place to holy nor a closer thing than holiness to Home.  Ache entered through my fingers.  I wished that I could wholly grasp that slickness, but I knew I couldn’t, so with fingertips and forehead, I pressed into the Western Wall again. 
*          *          *
The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, is the closest thing to where the Temple was, which is why nothing is more holy, more kadosh, to the Jews who worship there.  That house of the Most High stood until 70 CE, when Rome realized the Jews would never accept their rule, especially not here in their homeland and absolutely not here near their temple, which charged them with a crackling zeal, a zeal which lashed in blinding arcs from revolt to revolt against Rome.  One of these revolts finally provoked Rome to storm the Holy City with so many legionnaires that though they could be defied and were they could not be deterred and weren’t.  The Jewish resistance was decimated and the Temple demolished and the first of half a hundred generations sent off to their wanderings, which began in Yavneh, a place, as Rome would learn, still too close to Jerusalem and its humming wreck of sacred stones.  After the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, which ended in 135 CE, Rome had learned, and so the Jews were scattered, not merely from Jerusalem but from Israel altogether.  Scattered, the last of Israel’s tribes.  For the next two millennia the people of Judah were persecuted for coming to places they weren’t welcome, which they could not help but do because they were not welcome anywhere.
Until Spain: there they found a refuge and perhaps, they thought, a home, until Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  That year the climate of the court changed too, such that after centuries of safety, the Jews found themselves adrift again, and aimless—there were no other harbors in existence.  Our professor of Judaism in the Jerusalem Center tried to convey the effect of the expulsion from Spain: “It is considered one of the three great calamities of our people,” he said—the second, actually.  The first was the destruction of the Temple.  The Shoah was the third.
*          *          *
            After I had prayed, I crossed the broad clearing before the Wall and joined some friends.  A somber haze hung in the evening air: I recognized it from a week ago: I’d woke up to the oriental, exotic Call to Prayer, ventured groggily onto a balcony, and seen the Holy City, all dust-blown and amber and shrouded with sunrise.  O for more sober stirring amber.  My friends had been writing prayers to put between the seams of the Wall and asked if I had written mine already.  My prayer—no, I hadn’t written it.  I wasn’t sure what it was.  I had to figure out what it meant to write it too.  When they asked me about it I remembered hearing, as a kid, of a place where people scrolled up their holiest hopes and placed them in a wall, though I’d had no idea why they would put them there, which is probably why it stuck with me.  Having felt the Wall though, I felt I knew something of why.
            I looked up, prompted by an elbow in my side, to see my friend looking pointedly towards an austere looking man.  Apparently he was policing the promenade, which overlooked the clearing before the Wall, to ensure no one violated the Sabbath, by writing, say, which was a form of work.  I looked around at the sky, which was still that stirring amber.  True, a maze of beige buildings hid the sun in the west, but that didn’t mean that it had set.  A different Jewish man apparently shared my opinion—he was writing nearby—so once the stern man passed I also wrote my prayer.
            Returning to the Wall was more difficult, now that the sun had almost set, which is when Shabbat begins.  A throng was slowly forming in the clearing.  As I worked my way east, I was temporarily stunned by a passerby’s cylindrical hat, which was as broad as his shoulders, upright, and spooled with something like fur.  His forelocks dangled like coiling springs beside his ears: Haredi—ultra-orthodox—the most inflexibly obedient of the Jews.  Everyone at the Wall covered their heads out of respect, but most Jews, as well as visitors like my friends and I, wore the much less conspicuous kipas—small, circular caps.  Perhaps the man wanted to do more than the minimum for God.
            By the time I got to the Wall, black-robed figures had formed dozens of lines before it, each five or six deep.  I only wanted to place my tiny, crinkled prayer in the Wall, so I quickly slipped between two lines to do so, then stopped, abruptly, stunned: the Wall was full.  I looked up and down a four-foot vertical seam, hoping for the space to wedge a single, sacred spitwad.  Not a prayer.  I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed the paper prayers earlier, while I had read in Braille of all those times the words had failed.  They were everywhere, tats of white and pink and yellow pleas compressed as much as possible.  I walked twenty feet in both directions, weaving in and out of worshippers—some muttering scripture in haunting, Hebraic tones—ran my eyes along the only horizontal crease in reach.  Prayers burst the entire way like popcorn, littering the ground like the floor of an emptied theater.  No space, no hope.
            The Wall had stirred me like an ocean floor; as sediment swirled, I glimpsed beneath.  I had tried to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, spent some ink and space for her sake, but a deeper void or prayer had poured out through my pen.  I wrote what I wanted more than anything on that paper, and now my hopes felt threatened by the way the Wall was full.  I read through my prayer, needing to sacrifice everything that I possibly could.  Then I tore it down to the two words that I couldn’t: “Reach me.”
C. S. Lewis once said that God, who dwells outside of time, answers every prayer as if it were the only one in existence.  He is like an author who can stop writing, to consider a prayer and a pray-er for an eternity, before answering the moment He is asked.  I wonder about those other prayers, those other words they hold: like the sands of the sea or clouds of desert stars, they are not known nor numbered, nor could they be by me.  I wonder at the One who reads them all, who is therefore worth worshipping, as the Mezuzah says, with all thy heart and soul and might—which explains why frizzy-bearded elders bob so oddly before the Wall, whipping from their knees, to their waist, to their neck, then head, towards what they hold most holy.  They repeat and repeat and repeat it, with heart and soul and might, with all, because that is how you love the one whose name is Endless; the One whose love was like that first—that’s why he is to whom you pray, even if his inbox looks full.
*          *          *
Jerusalem was ruled by Rome until the 7th century CE, when Islam swept west from Arabia across northern Africa.  Muslims venerate Jerusalem as the place where Abraham offered Ishmael, his oldest son, and where Muhammad ascended to the Seven Heavens, spoke to God, and returned with instructions for the faithful.  The Dome of the Rock now enshrines the stone where his feet left the earth.  The Jews believe that same stone to be where the heart of their temple, the Holy of Holies, had stood.  Some Christians believe Abraham offered Isaac in the same spot.  The only thing anyone seems to agree on is that this place is holy.
And alas for the fertility of holy ground, for mingled seeds of strife and sacredness: how can it be that here of all places such conflicts have come to fruition?  The crusaders took Jerusalem around 1100 CE, then mercilessly slaughtered the Holy City’s civilians, even the Arabs who were Christian.  For some reason they spared the Dome of the Rock, topping its great, golden semi-sphere with a cross rather than eradicating it, two hundred years before Muslim forces would return to reclaim Jerusalem.  Suleiyman the Magnificent, builder of the mighty crenellations and walls and gates about Jerusalem, also allowed free worship, such that one might find a mosque and cathedral and synagogue all on the same street.   Eight centuries of Muslim rule ended with World War I, when the Ottoman Empire, which had coerced the Palestinians to fight for them, fell beside Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Britain took Palestine, the Holy Land, from the Ottomans, and governed it as a protectorate.  So the unfortunate Palestinians lost a war that wasn’t theirs, and thus lost a land that was.
Not long after all civilized peoples had been staggered into silence, as the world learned of the Shoah, Britain pulled out of Palestine to let the Jews who had taken refuge there fight with the Palestinians for their homeland.  Yes, “their” homeland.  Both sides fought for their homeland, both watered holy ground with blood, but only the Jews won.
*          *          *
In a crack within a seam, I wedged my prayer, then sidled through the crowd back toward my friends.  Things were beginning to feel chaotic.  Groups of black-clad worshippers clumped around rabbis who read from Torah scrolls while a variety of hymns from different groups collided in the air, mixed further with loud calls in Hebrew between friends and even the mirthful shouts of dancers.  Everyone seemed to be saying “Shabbat Shalom!”  “Peace upon the Sabbath,” literally, and “Welcome,” commonly.  Several times it was meant for me: I heard it first from a guy that I’d bumped into, who said it merrily while he waved away my apology; second, from a man with a long, grey beard and kindly crinkles near his eyes—I’d stepped aside to let him and his grandson (I’m guessing) go by.  The four- or five-year-old surveyed the atmosphere around him with brown, orblike eyes, tentatively clapping his free hand to the one his grandfather held in imitation of the crowd, now enjoying an energetic tune.  And I received a few “Shabbat Shaloms” after I tried greeting people in Hebrew too, which often uncorked too much for me to handle.  “No! I don’t speak Hebrew,” I’d have to laugh as I explained myself, “I’m just visiting,” which, I noted, never changed the tone of welcome.  One of my friends must have looked particularly Jewish.  Once, after greeting an old man, the man deeply said, “Welcome home.”  
Eventually, I ended up in one of the circles of dancing Jews.  It was a lot like playing ring-around-the-rosies in elementary school, except here we played in Hebrew.  Also, some people had assault rifles.  The military guys unnerved me a little, until one guy, who didn’t have green fatigues and black boots and a rifle on his back, was so friendly and enthusiastic as he encouraged me to join, that I did.  I noticed my friend Dan Jones jumping around, arm in arm with them already and hollering his best imitation of Hebrew—which was passable, or at least inaudible—to tunes he didn’t know, and remembered, “I know some Hebrew too...”  
Besides the assault rifle issue, I had been worried about respecting this place.  We were probably fifty feet away from the Wailing Wall now—I could still see people illuminated in yellow cones of light, bobbing with their hearts and minds and strengths.  Clearly, this clearing was for worship, though what that meant was not so clear.  I thought I could understand all these groups, to some degree.  I had sought salvation in obedience with exactness, in the letter of the law; and I had failed and felt forlorn; then I had tried forgetting the law, the impossible burden, and just do the feeble good that I could manage.  Lately I had immersed myself in scripture, hoping its spirit would change me.  I wasn’t sure what really worked though—though how I looked and labored, heavy laden—so I wasn’t sure what to do with conflicts between modes of worship.  It was then, while I stood wondering whether dancing were appropriate, that the grandfather and grandson, clapping, had stepped by.  After greeting me, the elder looked to the circle of bounding and laughing Jews, who were about my age.  I watched him carefully.  Light buoyed within his eyes.  That was good enough for me.
And I am grateful that it was, because I can still remember one of the tunes, I hear it as I write this, a year and a half later; I can still remember circulating arm-in-arm, laughing and singing and dancing to the point of exhaustion, shouting as we’d suddenly reverse our direction, or strike up a new tune.  I remember the clap on my back as I was brought into the circle—a holy clap, to me—and wondering if my idea of worship was not a bit too somber.  I remember many things, but mostly, the face of a boy.
I saw him before the bobbing began in earnest, or the grandfather passed with his grandson, or the dancing swept me up.  I had just stepped back from the Wall with ache still in me from my fingertips.  I wondered at the slickness. How long they had hoped for Home?  How much hope was there for it?  Can we hope without hope? I was so absorbed that for a while I couldn’t even see the Wall, or the crowd, which milled and murmured about me, as it was beginning to be.  Then I returned to my sight, and part of the blur before my eyes became a boy.  About sixteen and just barely unhandsome—his nose just too upturned, his cheeks just over-round.  I’m not sure that he saw the crowd, nor do I think that they saw him.  They bustled and surged—rushing off to hear their rabbi, or write their prayers, or sing their scriptures, or bob before the Wall, worship in whatever way that they thought best—but he just stood and faced the stones.  He looked so unremarkable that at first I looked right past him.  Then something tugged my gaze back to his face, where I found the whole history of his people and a feeling beyond words.  He was crying.



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