Last night I stood underground in Jerusalem and breathed the cool air of an ancient tunnel. All around me, my eldest son’s classmates chatted and laughed, riding the high of their graduation ceremony earlier that afternoon; goodbye, elementary school! Goodbye, familiar routines!
But I couldn’t join the conversation, nor listen closely to the jokes and quips. I was too entranced by the enormous stones that formed a whole side of the tunnel – the stones that are the Western Wall.
Higher up above the ground, these stones become familiar – so familiar that I rarely look at them, truly look at them, instead of seeing them only as a small part of a bigger whole. But underground, I saw them for themselves, for just a fleeting moment. And what I saw was beautiful – a patchwork of colors and textures, a hidden work of art.
I thought: Dig deep enough, look closely enough, and the Western Wall begins to look like artwork.
And then I thought: Step back, and the art begins to talk.
The soft pinks, soft golds, soft whites, tell the story of the ancient rock from which these stones were taken. Where did you send your men to mine, King Herod? Where did they find a rock that wears such pretty shades? And those men – were they afraid of you — you who killed so many of your relatives — or were they, like the pigs in Augustus’ famous dig at you, safer than those whom you have loved?
The soft greens tell the story of centuries of underground existence, of humidity and moss and mildew, of the forcefulness of life. Even while this wall stood broken above ground, a testament to the Second Temple’s destruction, here at its roots life went on growing, green and lush and so soft to the touch.
And in this covered state, another story lies – the story of an ancient terror. Here, in the sewers that ran underneath the pilgrims’ road to the burnt-down temple, the last rebels of Jerusalem hid – and hoped. Let us survive here underground, let us go on undetected.
The Roman sword that was found in this tunnel tells us how these hopes had ended. These people died here. Yet our nation – it survived.
Somewhere above, on the street level, ancient pilgrims walked from far and wide. They washed their feet further down the hill, then walked above this sewer, up the slope, and bought food and drinks and animals to sacrifice from little stalls. Today, Hebrew wedding songs intermingle with the muezzin’s call above the ruins of those ancient kiosks. “Again there shall be heard in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride,” a voice in Hebrew quotes Jeremiah from the Kotel plaza. Come and pray, croons a voice in Arabic, from the mosque on Temple Mount.
Together, these two calls tell another story: we have returned home, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy about the songs of joy that will be sung here. But the land has not been empty in our absence, and now all of us who live and pray here must share the soundscape, landscape, all.
It’s not an easy story, not an easy coexistence. Later that night, upon leaving The City of David archeological site, police cars blocked the streets all around us, seeking a stabber who tried to kill a cop. Innocent Arab residents of the neighborhood were delayed, and some were questioned. And we, as Jews – if it wasn’t for those policemen, I don’t believe we would have felt safe at all.
The stories we live don’t come without prices. Our return to our motherland bears a steep cost.
But these stories – they are ours. And in a way, we are theirs. They kept us going for millennia, past the destruction of two Temples, past exiles and dispersals, past pogroms and crematoria and challenges and loss. And as we walk these paths where our ancestors prayed and mourned and worshipped, our stories shape our future, and the many ways in which we shape the world.
Earlier that evening, during my son’s graduation ceremony, two of his classmates read out the last verses of the Torah, thus completing their grade’s study of all five of the Chumashim – the books of Moses. Everyone present then called out the traditional words with which we mark the completion of a chumash: Chazak chazak Venitchazak (Let us be strong, let us be strong and let us strengthen each other as well). The same call echoed throughout our history, wherever our ancestors learned our stories. By learning them in turn, our children earn the right to join in, too.
When I looked at the artwork that is the stones of the Kotel, I thought of the ways these ancient stories shape my life. Like the stones, I carry the marks of past events and present life force. Like the stones, I am both myself and part of a greater, bigger, whole. Our stories feed my creativity and grant me the blessings of belonging. In them, I find my wings, in them I’m rooted like a tree.
May the same blessings shape our children’s lives, may the same old stories inspire them, I thought as I stood under Jerusalem’s ground. May our past give them strength as they embark on new journeys, I prayed as I looked at my son and his classmates.
And when life throws them curve balls, may our tales give them heart.