“Something there is that doesn't love a wall, … The gaps I mean, No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there. I let my neighbour know beyond the hill; … "Good fences make good neighbours."
- Mending Wall by Robert Frost
This Tuesday is the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. It commemorates 40 days after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, when some of our ancestors in the desert celebrated around a golden calf. In one understanding of this disastrous event, the calf was a response to feeling the absence of Moses, their leader and intermediary with G-d.
It is also the beginning of the Three Weeks, a traditional period of mourning and self-reflection for the Jewish people, individually and as a community. It culminates on the Ninth of Av, the date of many calamitous events in Jewish history, especially the destruction of our two Temples. Over 2,000 years later, we have returned to our homeland, but we are still without our Temple, exiled from it for the sin of baseless hatred.
My wife and I, together with our children arrived in Israel in August 1996, ten months after a Jew had assassinated a prime minister. The buses we put our children on to go school were being blown up. Yossi Beilin, the left wing former Justice Minister, was quoted then as saying that he refused to live in a world without the possibility of peace. At the time, it made me angry to have a chief architect of the failed Oslo Accords continuing to live out his fantasy. Seventeen years later, after Beilin himself declared the peace process over because of extremists on both sides, it is me who is now wondering: In the Robert Frost poem, am I still the neighbor believing in the inevitability of fences, or am I the poet who dares to dream of a world without them, willing to risk baseless love?
Friday night, at the Kotel, the Western Wall, the energy is palpable. At first glance, the sea of humanity seems to be clothed in a mass of black and white. But, there are shades and there are colors. And there are hats and other head coverings – black yeshiva world, black one Hassidic community or another, each shape representing a unique place from another time, reborn in Israel. There are shtreimels; mink, sable, round fur hats, combed just the right way, each an investment in honor of Shabbos Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath. And there are religious Zionists with their white, knit kippot and there are free spirits donning rainbow colored kippot. And there are Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Birthright participants and independent tourists. It seems like everyone is represented - and that’s just the men’s section.
When one descends the ramp to approach the Western Wall, melding into the mass of people, each praying according to his own nusach (wording in the prayer book with corresponding melodies), the sights and sounds can create a sensory overload. It can be so much all at once, as when we were receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, our eyes heard and our ears saw. There, we felt our souls separating from our bodies in a near death experience. We pleaded with Moses to be our intermediary; our encounter with the Divine too immediate, too invasive to our individualities.
A colleague made the observation that to really experience the Kotel, one needs to step back from being a tourist, a spy if you will, and peer deeply into the faces of those engaged in prayer. In the process, one connects, soul to soul. A guest in my home, reflecting on his encounter, felt humbled by the discipline he witnessed in the presence of someone steeped in prayer. At that moment, this person, a Christian, really saw and then knew another, a Jew.
A short walk from the Kotel deep into the Muslim Quarter is the Kotel Hakatan, the Small Wall. Approaching it, one confronts an imposing green door, guarded closely by two Israeli soldiers.
The Kotel Hakatan, like its connected longer section, the Western Wall, is part of the outer retaining structure, still standing, never destroyed, from the Second Temple. The Kotel Hakatan, unlike the Kotel, is not a designated prayer area and as such doesn’t have separate sections. Men and women approach its rough hewn stones together, pouring out what is most intimate in their hearts, carefully placing prayers handwritten on small scraps of paper into its crevices.
At the Kotel Hakatan, one is opposite the Temple Mount, standing as close to the Kadosh Kadoshim, the Holy of Holies from the two Temples, as can be, without physical presence. Over 600 years after the Second Temple’s destruction, the Dome of the Rock was constructed on the site and during the Crusades it was used as a church. This most sacred spot is also, according to tradition, the location of the Foundation Stone, from which G-d created the world and where, as written in the Torah, Abraham took his son, Isaac, for the Akeida, his binding. In the Quran, according to Islamic tradition, it is the binding of Ishmael.
What can be so powerful here is having the three Abrahamic faith communities – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sharing a narrative of holiness; quietly, personally, individually and collectively, among ourselves and the One True G-d. Shalom, Saalam, Peace, which we pray should come speedily in our days, can only be achieved by looking forward, walking together past mutual lines of grievances, and focusing on our common bonds, on that which unites us and binds us.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.