Thursday, March 22, 2012

Re-discovering the Kotel - A Magical Night at the Wall

Last night was the first time I have been to the Kotel in almost a year. I admit this with a real sense of guilt. I have always been committed to visiting the Kotel at least for each of the שלש רגלים in fulfilment of the Torah’s prescription:

"שלוש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני האדון ה' אלקי ישראל"

However, in recent years my regular chol hamoed visits have become increasingly unpleasant. The throngs that flock to Jerusalem over Chag have been (Barukh Hashem) so overwhelming that one year, we experienced a policeman directing the pedestrian traffic through the Rova. The parking has been impossible, and so what might have been a somewhat short visit to daven has become a hot, tiring, crowded trek for the entire family. In addition the pilgrimage has lacked a particularly spiritual component, as with the Kotel so full, it is difficult to concentrate or focus, and one is concerned to lose one of the kids. So, last chol hamoed, for the first time in about 20 years, I just didn’t go.

Well – after my highly positive experience at the Kotel last night, I have a new plan.

I went there to give a shiur to my Talmidim. Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi was holding its end-of-winter-zman “Mishmar” - learning all night with Vatikin at dawn – by the Wall.  I arrived at the Old City at 12:30 and headed to the Wall.   

As I emerged from the car, the air was fresh, the streets were quiet, serene, calm. Whenever one goes to the Kotel one anticipates an experience of “Klal Yisrael” – an encounter with a mix of  Jews that communicates a deep feeling that beyond our diversity and difference, that there is a fundamental unity of all Jews. This was my mindset as I made my way from Sha’ar HaAshpot towards the security checkpoint. It didn't take long to engage with that diversity. Far ahead were 3 Yeshiva Students. About twenty yards behind me were 4 people –  two couples – smiling, jovially teasing one another. They were secular; the women in jeans, the men bare-headed. But they too were making their way to the Wall. Alongside me, an elegantly dressed young lady wearing leggings, carrying a designer handbag walked with a sense of purpose. Who was this woman, I wondered? I was trying to define her, to label her into one of the classic categories, the “tribes” in which we live. As she approached the washbasin, she washed her hands with the washing cup – 3 times alternately. By the way she washed her hand, it was evident that she was accustomed to this ritual. Was she religious? Secular? Newly religious? Once religious? - Who knows? Did she come here regularly? Was she here to pray for someone sick? ... it really didn’t matter. I proceeded, enjoying the fact that we were all here, together; lots of different stereotypes. Tonight, it felt like we all belonged here, in all our difference.  

The Kotel was calm, beautiful and reverent. Even the people calling us for a minyan – “Arvit; Arvit!” - made their announcement in soft tones. The Hazzan who lead my minyan – a red-head Hassidic man – davened with expressive kavvana. A simple, daily Ma'ariv, became elevated. Somehow, whenever I am at the Kotel, I sense that I have a special opportunity to stand at the “Gate of Heaven” and to really speak to God. I tried to inject my tefilla with special meaning, to genuinely connect with God. At this late hour, there was no rushing, no pushing; the minyan took its time.

And then, giving shiur. The Yeshiva were congregated there, all sitting at shtenders in the inner area, under Wilson’s Arch, some in havrutot, some learning alone. One or two boys had fallen asleep. I gave shiur to 25 guys, all huddled together, and I tried to communicate to them a sense of our special historic privilege. I told the boys: “Look where we are! Some 2 thousand years ago, our forefathers walked across the bridge above our heads leading the lambs into the Temple, to bring the Korban Pesach! Jews yearned for thousands of years to stand at this very spot. We may not have a Beit Hamikdash, but the Shekhina never leaves this site. We can still fulfill our obligation (Shemot 23:17) to “present ourselves” before God’s presence.” My shiur was Pesach oriented – Redemption, Eliyahu Hanavi, and other related themes. 1 a.m. and I was inspired by the fire of Eliyahu Hanavi, and the interest of my students.

I emerged from the tunnel area after bidding my students a good night of learning. I had work the next day and couldn’t manage without a few hours sleep. The entire prayer area was virtually empty. The larger plaza was also deserted. But then I saw them -  a  Chattan and Kalla, a bride and groom - deep in prayer, standing right at the front of the Kotel plaza. It was 2am. Here was a young Haredi couple who had come to the Kotel straight from their wedding! What was beautiful about this scene was that they were all alone! It looked strange; one does not generally see a man and woman praying alongside one another at the Kotel. But of course, this couple who had married some hours earlier didn’t want to separate from one another. They didn’t go down to the prayer area, but instead, stood together, in perfect harmony, swaying together, praying together. What were they  davening for? For the future of their lives together? Were they praying for the sick and needy of Israel, having absorbed the tradition that a Chattan and Kalla on their wedding day have a special spiritual power to pray for others? It was a beautiful scene. Although they were distant from me and oblivious to my presence in this most public place, I almost felt like I was intruding on their intimate, special moment. I marvelled at this young couple who felt a need to bring God so palpably into their relationship and personal joy.

So, I thought to myself, I have now discovered that this is the time of day to come to the Kotel. I think I am going to try to visit regularly now, late at night, at this magical hour when all is calm, when one can daven without interruption, when the Kotel returns to being enchanting, spiritual, inspirational. It is wonderful to have re-discovered my path back to the Kotel.

Chag Kasher Vesameach!


Aliza Sokol said...

Rav Al,
This is a beautiful post. I have been to the kotel late at night and I really sympathize with everything said here!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post; really brings me back to my year in Israel. I very strongly remember my not-all-that inspiring experiences at the kotel. Thanks for this different take!

Allison Zur said...

I love this blog! I live right by the Kotel and find the middle of the night the most meaningul time to go. I think it's interesting to go during the day, surrounded by our diverse community, and return at night. Both are very special, very different experiences!

Stefanie Raker said...

I appreciate most of this post very much, but I object to stereotyping and pigeonholing people as "secular" or "religious", especially based on what they wear. I think it is wrong to judge a person's connection to the sacred based on whether she wears jeans or skirts, or whether he wears a kippah or not.

Alex Israel said...

I wasn't attempting to justify or recommend the practice. I was merely recording the fletting thoughts that passed through my mind.
Possibly, I have instincts that tend to initially label people based on appearance. But in truth, I do think that most of us do it. Our brains try to assess people by the way they act and dress so that we can know how to interact with them: Is she Israeli or American? Religious? Haredi? Secular? Is that person a tourist, a native?
I was trying to say that at this late hour, the Wall and everyone there seemed (happily) to be quite oblivious to all our varying shades and stripes, our uniforms and our labels.
You are 100% correct that we are wrong to judge one another. Someone can look religious and be a disgusting individual - far from religious. A secular looking person may be a true Tzaddik.
Hope I have clarified that a little.

David Kamins said...

Rav Israel,
I was sitting here at work with not much going on so I decided to read your blog and I was really moved by this post. I remember that special night at the kotel as one of the most powerful moments I had in my year in Israel. Reading this really makes me miss Israel and especially yeshiva. I hope all is well and thanks again for the weekly parsha shiurs you send me.

Alex Israel said...

Hope that you are well. We're missing you at Yeshiva this year! Thanks for adding a comment. Stay in touch!