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Comfort, comfort ye my people

May 17, 2009


Sunday, 11:45 pm local time

After we visited the Temple Mount, we had some free time, so a few of us went to see the Western Wall. I could not imagine a visit to Jerusalem without seeing this most sacred place. My feet hurt, I was thirsty, and really wanted to go home, but I did not want to take it for granted that I would get another chance before we leave on Thursday morning. When we arrived in Jerusalem it felt like we had all the time in the world to see the city, but now I am counting the hours and thinking of all the things I still want to do.

We left the rest of the group at the St. Stephen Gate (the sight of the first Christian martyr) and walked through the Muslim Quarter. After a drink stop, we turned left, traveling parallel to the Temple Mount. To get to the Western Wall we had to go through a security checkpoint, complete with metal detector and armed guards. This deposited us into the courtyard of the Western Wall. The whole courtyard is maybe 100 x 200 yds, and is divided into two areas, one for men and one for women. Hundreds of people had come to pray. They touched the wall, kissed it, prayed in front of it, stuffed laments and prayers in its many cracks. Most striking was the dozens of young Israeli soldiers who had come to see the wall, praying with automatic rifles slung across their backs.

The wall itself runs the length of the courtyard, forming part of the western barrier of the Mount. There is great disagreement as to the identity of the Wall itself. In popular imagination, this is the only remaining vestige of the Second Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Evidence suggests, however, that the Wall was actually built along side of the temple as a retaining wall to give structural integrity to the Mount.

Either way, the Western Wall is a holy place. The temple is the center of Jewish faith and life. Without it, we are in a sense a people of diaspora. Even though we have been granted a homeland with international sovereignty, there yet remains a brokenness signified by the broken wall of the temple. The wall itself is a lament. It cries out to God, that not yet are His people whole. We still suffer injustice and violence. The Wall encapsulates all the despair and pain of a people who have lived in chaos and fear. There is a reason it is also called the ‘Wailing Wall,’ for at times you can hear the loud cries of the people who have come here to pour their hearts before God. Ignoring for a second the current political situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we can say that the Jewish people have seen terrible things for the past decades, centuries, millennia. Looking at the Wall, and the many people who had gathered to pray before it, I could not help but think of the Shoah. I could not help but think of the pain of a people being threatened with extinction. I could not help to think of the ways in which the community is threatened today, and with it how so many other communities are threatened.

At the same time, however, I could not help but think of the resilience and strength of the Jewish community. This, perhaps, is just as touching to me as thinking of the pain and hardship. In the faces of the people I saw hope as well as sadness. I saw people who trust that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still present with His people.

Even as a Jew, I was not expecting the Wall to be as emotional as it was. When we got there, we set a time to meet. Then, one of the other folks in the group looked at me and asked if I was going to need more time. I didn’t really know what to say. I had been thinking about it along the way to the Wall, but when they asked me that, it began to sink in just how much it meant for me to visit the Wall. And what did it mean? I’m not exactly sure. I got emotional at two other sites – Masada, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The reason I did at those places was because I was able to envision some significant event that had taken place where I was standing. Not so at the Wailing Wall. It was more a feeling of great burden for a people who mean so very much to me. My heart ached with all the pain, beauty, and hope that is wrapped up in Judaism. It is difficult to describe. At the Wall, I saw so much brokenness. For much of the trip, I have been learning about the experience of Palestinians in the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem. This is one of the reasons that I was wandering if I would have as much of an emotional reaction to the Wailing Wall. But when I got there, it was not a matter of who was right and who was wrong. It was merely a fact that people are suffering. How badly I want peace for Jerusalem, peace for Jews, for Muslims, for Christians, Israelis, Palestinians! Like the Wall, my brothers and sisters are broken. In God’s grace, we will be restored.

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