We are at the Kotel, the Western Wall, for a family celebration. I haven’t been here in so long. Just like when we lived in New York and we rarely visited all the famous places, we – I – take for granted that we are here, we can go “any time”–but we don’t. It is also the English date of 70 years since we became a state, 70–the last birthday my mother celebrated. Maybe that is why, although I pray for the loved ones of others, I feel somewhat numb and disconnected- I have ‘no one’ left to pray for. That’s not true, yet right now it feels that way. So later today, G-d will answer that prayer, sending me a small soul to pray for. It doesn’t work, and I wonder why as I cry, why things have to be this way, finally feeling the sadness. Yet the next day, as I talk with my passenger who has been sick with something that they can’t figure out, I get an unexpected answer. He tells me that as he went from doctor to doctor, did test after test, he was almost as frustrated with the illness as he was with the lack of answers. Then he spoke to a doctor friend in synagogue, whose words somehow comforted where all the other assurances had not; his friend said that sometimes, the hardest thing for doctors to say is “I don’t know”. This comforted him, and unbeknownst to him, me, because sometimes that is the true answer — we don’t have an answer, we just don’t know. We are on this side, unable to see past the veil and understand why some people get 70 years, why others more, why even others so many less. We can only do what we can do, and decide for ourselves to have faith that even if we don’t have the answers, they are out there somewhere.
May 14, 2019
At the Kotel once more, taking a friend who is visiting.
The notes cover the ground like small piles of snow on this day so hot we are all melting, the crumpled pieces of paper trickling down the Wall to rest at its base. They are sprinkled here and there in the cracks, even taped to a stone above me so the prayer stays at the Wall, reaches its destination Above. Almost no two people are wearing the same type of clothing- there is a chayelet in khaki skirt and boots, women in pants and shawls, one with a beret, one with a wide-brimmed sunhat, another one with her headscarf covering all her hair and her long skirt brushing the floor of the plaza as she sways, lightly touching the wall, praying. A multitude of voices, so many different languages, are all asking for the same thing- that the deepest wishes of their hearts be fulfilled. An old lady with a small pull wagon makes her way through the crowd; another, whose dark wrinkled skin beautifully offsets her white flowing robe, raises her hands, asking, beseeching, pleading. Some people are sighing out loud, some crying, some quietly wiping their tears. Ay, the lady behind me says, ay. The tourist on the steps next to me lowers her head and sniffles quietly, a friend patting her on the shoulder.
Why, it’s just a wall. A hard, uncaring surface. And yet the years and tears have worn the cracks deeper, made more room for the notes, pain written, recorded, and sent up with a prayer to please help, please take it away. No, it is not that at all, not an unlistening, uncaring wall. It is not just a place for people from all over the world, of many religions, to visit, to touch, to capture a picture for themselves and say ‘I was here’. It is more. It is solid and firm, holding up those who lean against it, broken and strengthless, with no other place to go for the answer to their sorrows. It says to us, who will be gone so soon, look, after all this time, I am here, still here for you.
I finish my own prayers, wipe my own tears, take a picture for a mom and her two daughters who came here all the way from an area I know well, and start to back away. Up close, the wall was too big to really see; it was more a palpable presence. Even when I looked up to the blue sky it was too high to contemplate, hovering over me, yet not threatening but comforting. I think about all the times I have been here, when I was younger and the place was considered to be so holy, no one would even think of sitting here, much less placing chairs. We all would back away, not daring to desecrate the holiness of the place we only just got back into Jewish hands. It was hidden, covered by filth and garbage, yet it stayed quietly, humbly uncomplaining, waiting for our triumphant return. What it saw first was surprised soldiers, who never expected to get that far.
Just two years ago (the Hebrew date this year falls on this coming Sunday, May 19th) we celebrated 50 years of holding the Wall, being able to touch it, to have a solid and unchanging place to pray and connect with our history. I was blessed at that time to meet one of those soldiers, now famously pictured, who looked up at the Kotel with wonder and awe. He said, about a life quietly lived since, that he was just a soldier then, just a man now. I will always remember his sweetness and humility, denial of chance fame and only wanting to continue to do the good that he has done as a doctor.
The wall we once left, then returned to, then honored– do we take it for granted by bringing chairs, meeting friends, singing and celebrating in its vicinity? Or does it just want to function as it always has, the last wall before the heart of the city, protecting our temple, yet being a meeting place for Jews from all walks of life, and now for people from all corners of the globe?
As I back away further, the Wall becomes both bigger and smaller. More real and yet more of a beautiful picture, so close yet untouchable. We are far up the stairs and around the corner before it fades from sight, although not from my mind.
I think, now, in the quiet night, of how many people go there, of how, just as so many speak to it, the Wall speaks to us; how we all cry together in that place, hoping for answers and comfort. I think it is beautiful how there were so many trying to touch it, to pray there, yet there was room for all. And, I think, the Wall has left its message in my heart.