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May 31, 2011

Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day)

While in many places Yom Yerushalayim -the day that the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall was recaptured -gets less attention than Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli independence day), it has powerful meaning to me. Thus, in the spirit of the day, I will relate a personal experience of mine about my first time visiting Jerusalem.

As it so happens, that was also the first time I went to the Kotel (the Western Wall, hereafter often referred to as "the Wall"), which was a revelation for me. Perhaps not in the way you'd think, though.

When, at the ripe age of 18, I first laid hands on the Wall, my entire body welled up with very strong emotions. I had prepared myself with recognition and consideration of my heritage, I had explored and attached myself to the footsteps of my forefathers who had settled in the land and made pilgrimage three times a year. I learned of the yearnings that the exiled had after the destruction of the Temple and attempted to carry within my soul a remnant or shadow of the experience they must have felt, recognizing the gaping hole left when the singular place of worship -a home dedicated to God -was torn away from them.  By extension, though I never had the experience of it, the Temple has been torn from me too, as I worked to inherit the experiences of my ancestors.

But nothing could have prepared me for they intense anger, bordering on rage, that I felt when I made first contact with the stones that had become smooth from millions of people touching, kissing, crying and praying upon them. At first, I was unaware that my passion had taken the form of fury, and the shock alone took a couple minutes to overcome. It had been quite some time since I'd lost my temper, but as I stood there fuming and fostering a strong desire to yell and scream over it's topmost stones, or otherwise to kick, pound and smash whatever part of the Wall I could reach, my nebulous emotions began to make way for clear thoughts and images.

I realized that my wrath had a definite source, and the thoughts started to trickle through my mind, eventually forming a coherent stream of consciousness.

First came the recognition that walls divide and separate. They create barriers and boundaries, most often to keep things out. Next, the realization that this Wall separates the sacred from the profane, that it is a line that distinguishes what may enter and what may not. That I may go only so far -only up to this Wall -and no further. That I am held back from the Presence of the Almighty by these stones. 

This Wall, and so much of its history, separate me from an ultimate closeness with God. Not that I believe the Wall should have been reduced to rubble, for I would not be able to freely walk into such a place. But rather, that we stopped here and went no further. So there I stood, seething -perhaps because I'd tapped into the yearning of my ancestors -over our choice to stop at the Wall and leave the divide as a monument.

While I only heard somewhat recently (in Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" here) that the brick walls in life are there for us to show our determination, to prove how far we will go to overcome obstacles, the concept was not lost to me as a teenager. For this reason, being at the Kotel made me angry. Angry at a people who stopped by the brick wall and went no further. Angry that this Wall I cannot overcome. This left me with the strong desire to either project my voice over its boundaries, to "overcome" its holding my prayers out, or to otherwise breach its stone and thereby pour my soul to God without solid rock to muffle my words.

At that moment, seeing the many notes crammed into the cracks and crevices within the Wall, I wanted nothing more than to cram myself as far into one as I could, perhaps far enough to have some part of me -if only my words -breach the barrier between me and God. Perhaps this was the source of the first note. If I were present when the Wall was secured, I like to think I'd have reached out to Hashem with a note crammed deeply into a crevice of the Kotel.

That anger did not go away throughout my year in Israel, nor did my desire to throw my voice over the Wall. Of course none of that stopped me from returning as often as I could. A couple of inches and a wall is still less division than being halfway across the world.

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