Dan Ornstein

Two Scenes From An Israel Journey

The Torah Scroll.

In Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, there is a Torah scroll on display which had been saved from destruction at the hands of the Nazis during Kristallnakht, the Night of Broken Glass which took place on November 9, 1938. That night, on the orders of Hitler’s regime, Nazi party members all over Germany looted Jewish businesses, vandalized synagogues, raped, assaulted, and murdered German Jews across the country, as their fellow citizens – friends and neighbors – looked on in fear, apathy, or approval. This was a foretaste of the hell looming for European Jewry and millions of other people.

The scroll is now the property of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, opened up for everyone to see that we and our God passed through the fire, badly burned but alive nonetheless. I am always intrigued by Torah scrolls. However, I was particularly drawn to viewing this “Holocaust Torah”, because at the time my community had commissioned an Israeli sofer (Torah scribe) to write a new scroll for us. Looking closely, I noticed the passage to which the scroll had been opened, the ancient priestly blessing that Jews recite on different occasions, from Numbers 6:

May God bless you and guard you; may God cause the light of God’s face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

What was the intent of the person who opened the scroll to this passage? To make a cynical point? “How wonderful, Jews. Look at the blessings bestowed upon you by your God who almost died at Auschwitz along with you! And yet you still believe.” To make a statement of profound faith? “Jews, we and our Torah are still here. The blessing and its God are still alive.” I cannot know what the museum curator who did this was thinking. All I knew at that moment was that no more than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, our sofer was slowly writing our new scroll. The Torah’s letters, the Talmud tells us, are black fire on white fire, still unextinguished by history’s flood of tears or rain of ashes.

The Kotel

Robert Frost began his poem, “Mending Wall,” with the words, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He then continued with a painful reflection upon the forced boundaries placed between him and his neighbor, ones that defy the natural impulse for things and people to connect with one another. What would Frost have thought if he had visited the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem? It is a magnet for the faithful, the faithless, the curious, the lost, the sick, the broken, an endless humanity that streams towards it day after day, all day from every faith, every corner of the earth. They place written prayers in the cracks and crevices of its stones, desperate as they are – as perhaps we all are – for healing, for God to hear us, for guidance, for forgiveness. Sometimes, the prayers are not pleas, but songs of pure gratitude, words of praise given unconditionally; other times, they are lettered fists shaken in rage and pain. The sea of people that visits loves this wall, needs this wall, looks forward to imagining an intimate conversation between each person and God at this wall, the very last vestige of the ancient Jerusalem Temple that stood on the Temple Mount. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, are there perhaps also no rational skeptics at the Kotel?

With all this, the Kotel is built upon irony. This most sacred place began as nothing more than the outer retaining wall of the newly renovated second Temple, one of the projects of King Herod the Great, perhaps the most brutal men to rule over the land of Israel in behalf of the Roman Empire. Equally ironic is that this place which draws people from the four corners of the earth to worship together is also an anxious, wobbly barrier. It stands between Jews who worship at it below the Temple Mount, and Muslims who worship on the Temple Mount, between Jewish women seeking full religious and civil rights and a religious hegemony seeking to enforce its own brands of gender separation and piety.

Standing before it, I imagined the Kotel almost heaving, reeling from these seismic tensions, struggling not only to retain the earth behind it but to keep the peace as well by forcing us to stay tucked in behind safe boundaries.

The Kotel is a wall, and the wall is the world: an endless paradox of separation and togetherness, boundaries and oneness, peace and conflict, the sacred and the profane living in the same space, the same time. And flying above its stones, traveling straight to God’s throne of glory, are words, the tools of creation and destruction given to us by God, who waits to hear what we have done with them.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at