What better place to visit on your first Shabbat in Israel than the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Kotel is all that remains of the second and last Jewish temple, the outer supporting wall. A quick history lesson: Judaism used to be a religion involving pilgrimage and animal sacrifice. After the loss of the temple and the expulsion of Jews from Israel, Judaism changed into the religion recognizable today and referred to as Rabbinic Judaism.
When Jews pray around the world, we bow towards the Kotel, because in the time of the temple, this is where the Ark of the Covenant rested; this is the place on earth in which God was most present and where heaven and earth are closest.
As I approached the wall, as it consumed my entire line of vision, I was entranced; all I could think, all I could feel, was “Wall.” I fell into the cool stones, as if seeking an embrace. My head rested upon the planes and my fingers caressed the contours. Tears slipped from my closed eyes. I did not know why I was crying.
And, I began to wonder: what do I affirm when I pray at the wall, bow towards the wall? Reform Judaism teaches that anyone can find God anywhere. This recognition of equitable inherent holiness is one of the tenets that I hold most dear. Yet, Temple Judaism included a spiritual caste system: women were allowed only in the outermost courtyard, men in the next and priests in the next. None but the High Priest could enter into the innermost sanctum where God resided. I would not want a return of that practice.
Additionally, I believe that finding God is a highly subjective experience. Personally, I find God in the middle of a New England forest in summer, not in the glaring brightness of the desert sun.
So then, why was I crying? If I do not hope for a return of the temple and if I do not think that God is any more present at the Kotel than anywhere else, what does the Kotel symbolize to me?
I took a walking tour of the underground tunnels, which reveal the full height and breadth of the wall, and I was struck by the permanence of the structure. Here were stones that had stood for more than 2,000 years. I stood in awe of the passage of time and in awe of the strength of the human ingenuity and community that can transverse that time. For one brief moment, I touched eternity. I have had similar feelings at the Colosseum and the Acropolis. But though I will never forget the heady rush of a tangible history and future that occurred when stepping into the Colosseum or onto the Acropolis for the first time, I did not cry in either location. What made the Kotel different?
The Colosseum and the Acropolis are kept as pristine paragons of achievements past. The Kotel is a living testament to humanity and its capacity to hope. Wedged into every tiny crack and crevice of the Jerusalem stone above and limestone below rests the prayers of thousands of people across cultures and languages and generations. It is this human element that makes all the difference.
The Kotel is kind of like God’s guestbook. The pale smooth stones practically beg to be painted with the colors of life and hopes and dreams. I know that when I choose to leave a prayer or a wish behind, wedged into a crack, that wish will long outlive me, the ink, and the paper.
This is why I was crying. Because at the Kotel, I felt, more than anywhere else, my capacity to make a difference and my own impact on history. As long as I live my life in a way that honors my prayer, then I will always have left a piece of myself, my own glorious, unique, wonderful self, in the stones that will always stand in the Jerusalem sun.
Laura Seide is a first-year rabbinical student beginning her course of study in Jerusalem. She hails from Boston, MA and studied Classics and Archaeology at the University of Rochester. She looks forward to being able to use her knowledge of ancient languages and literature to make a difference in the modern world and in people’s lives.