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The Kotel weeps: A prayer for 17 Tammuz

Jews mourn the loss of the Temple, but it is the absence of righteous conduct among the people that is most painful

“Have you studied Shulchan Aruch? Well, have you?”

A young man relentlessly repeatedly that question one afternoon, the question by which he’d judge my Judaism. The unlikely conversation occurred moments after the conclusion of an egalitarian prayer service in the back plaza of the Kotel, the Western Wall of our ancient Temple.

Today, we fast to commemorate the breach of Jerusalem’s outer walls, an event leading to the Temple’s destruction. This, the rabbis say, was a direct result of hatred Jew against Jew, sinat chinam.

Sinat chinam is alive and well at the Kotel. The service was marred by yeshiva bocher punks who were shoving, screaming and spitting, with ultra-Orthodox elders jeering them on. I was among those who created a physical barrier between the angry youth and the service, allowing some to actually pray.

Once again at the Kotel — called a Nazi, a pig, a defilement, not a Jew — the hatred of Jew against Jew reared its ugly head.

As many times as I’ve been to the Kotel to support prayer rights, the vitriol is still shocking. As many epithets hurled by fellow Jews, it’s still profoundly sad. I’ve been hit by eggs, sprayed with water, sprayed with spit, grabbed at, kicked in the shins and stomped on in the stomach. I can’t image any of this as Torah. I can’t imagine this in Shulchan Aruch.

No, I haven’t studied Shulchan Aruch. This is the answer I didn’t give. My refusal made the young man’s questioning more persistent. Finally I said: “I’ll answer your question, if you answer mine. Have you helped someone say a deathbed Vidui?”

The Vidui is a confessional prayer. Typically recited during the High Holy Days, there are two deathbed versions: one for someone capable of prayer, one for someone incapacitated, like my wife, who seven years ago was slowly dying of brain trauma. A Reform rabbi came to the hospital that Shabbat HaGadol to recite it on her behalf.

So consumed with judging my Judaism and all of liberal Judaism based on the ability to recite halachot — laws concerning religious practice — the young man forgot some core tenants of our covenant.

Justice and righteousness are practiced in the streets, in hospitals and other people’s homes. We visit the sick. We fill the mourner’s fridge and freezer with food. We sit with the elderly, play with children, advocate for the disabled, free the captive and clothe the stranger.

Is this not the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness… to deal thy bread to the hungry… to bring the poor that are cast out into thy house?” [Isaiah 58:6-7]

The young man knew my answer. I knew his. In a different moment, perhaps we could have asked different questions. Important questions. What mitzvot did you do today? Did they benefit the Jewish people? The world? Were there moments of holiness? Of love?

We learn. We build a better world. What we should never do: demean another. Like the woman that day spitting at the feet of participants. I can’t imagine that behavior prescribed by the Shulchan Aruch, either.

At first shocked, I said to her: “You’re spitting here. At the Kotel. You’re spitting in front of the Kotel?” When her angry face registered recognition of my words, she blushed, lowered her head and scurried off.

We have so much healing to do. We need to ask each other better questions, from a place of love and respect.

At the same time, be clear. I won’t be bullied away from my spot at the Western Wall. I won’t be harassed away from my place in the Kotel plaza. This place is ours. All of us. The entire Jewish people.

Legend claims that in the dark of night the Kotel weeps for the Jewish people. Yes, the Kotel weeps for us. A song proclaims that these stones have a heartbeat. The heartbeat is a prayer for our future.

The Temple
Do not mourn
For the Temple Mount.
The stones mourn for you.
They mourn for you who have forgotten
That God’s Voice
Can still be heard in the hills.
The stones mourn for you
Who have forgotten
That G-d’s Voice can still be heard in the valleys,
In the forests and deserts,
In the waters and skies.

Do not mourn
For the lost priests.
The tribes mourn for you.
They mourn for you who have forgotten
That God’s people are one.
Ephraim and Judah,
The Levites and the daughters of Zelophehad,
Ask why we still divide the House of Israel,
Why we still cast judgment,
Why we spurn each other with anger.
The tribes mourn for you who have
Forsaken your brothers
And rejected your sisters,
Closing your minds and hardening your hearts.

Do not mourn
For the lost sacrifices.
The yearling without blemish,
The ephah of fine flour and the hin of oil,
Mourn for you.
They mourn for you who have forgotten
That God requires your love and your power,
Your hope and your deeds.
The yearling, the flour and the oil mourn for you
Who have forgotten
That G-d wants the blood that flows through you,
The strength of your days,
Your song and your laughter,
Your wisdom and healing.

Tear your clothes
And sit in ashes
If you must.
Then, rise up!
Rise up and listen to God’s call:

Love My People Israel,
Love all of My People Israel.
Then, you will know the depth of My righteousness
And will drink from the well of My compassion.
Give them your heart.
Give them your days in service,
With joy and thanksgiving,
So that My Glory will dwell among you,
And that your days are long on this earth.

Postscript: Here’s a prayer called “Jew against Jew.” Here’s one called “Is This the Fast?” “The Temple” was written 17 Tammuz 5771.

The Temple” is © 2012 Alden Solovy and tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Alden Solovy is the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. A liturgist, poet, and educator, his teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud UK and synagogues throughout North America. He's the author of “This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day” and has written more than 750 pieces of new liturgy. His new book, "This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings," was published in 2019. He made aliyah in 2012. Read his work at www.ToBendLight.com.
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