Something had hit me. I was crying.
I wasn’t feeling anything before, except maybe agitation. Agitation at the fact that I wanted to feel something spiritual but I wasn’t. Was I just numb? But now… now I was feeling it and I was crying. I have to laugh at the absurdity of it. The moment felt… perfect.
My uncle sat in a plastic chair nearby. Between us stood a group composed of religious men and Birthright kids getting pictures for the Facebook profile. He was smiling. It was a saintly smile. Like I had just accomplished something and he was proud. Like I said. It was all perfect.
This wasn’t my first trip to the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem. Since the tender age of 16 I have come and reveled at the beauty and majesty of this holy site around 4 times now. Growing up Jewish, the wall was our Mecca. When we would learn about Israel, it wouldn’t be long before the wall was mentioned.
For those who don’t know, here’s a real short history of the wall;
At some point a long time ago, some Jews got together and decided to build a huge Temple in the city of Jerusalem, because even back then we were pretty good at coming up with real estate development deals. Since that point, the temple has been destroyed by Babylonians, then rebuilt by Herod the Great, only to be destroyed again during the Roman conquest around 70 A.D. All that remains at the site is the Wall on the western side of the Temple and some underground tunnels. It’s a site of great tragedy but also cause for great celebration for the Jews.
Warning: ANYTIME you hear a story about visiting the wall, prepare yourself for the guaranteed sob story that goes along with it. And don’t misinterpret my tone. I mean there will literally be a story about sobbing whenever someone refers to the holy site. People commonly have an urge to cry when they visit the holy place. Explanations? A closeness to God? Some latent spiritual power that brings feelings out of the deepest depths of the soul, maybe?
The most famous and oft repeated of these examples is the story of the group of Israeli Paratroopers. Upon accidentally discovering the wall, the battle hardened, zionist men broke down into tears. Why? Why would soldiers who just braved the face of death, who have no real idea as to what this place is feel the urge to cry, the same feeling that strikes into the heart of A E Pi brothers on their free trip to the holy land.
Gimme a break – my logical, skeptical side tells me. Isn’t this just a self-fulfilling prophecy?
You’re told you will cry. You’ve heard stories about people crying. You expect to cry. And guess what? You do because you expect to. No mysticism, no spirituality, no secret ancient power- just modern psychology. I still believed this even after crying unexplainably 2 out of the 3 prior times I had gone before this past summer.
But this arrogant opinion of mine was soon to be gone..
Mid-June 2013: I found myself back at the shouq (marketplace) of Jerusalem.
My uncle Avram and I had agreed to run some errands together then make a trip to the wall- as is tradition for everytime I come to Israel.
Quick note on Avram – he may seem like an old short man, now pushing 80, and walking with a slight limp, cane in hand, but damn can this guy move. Walking through the bustling Israeli crowds in the hot middle eastern sun, he’s so nimble. So quick. Every time we would reach our various destinations, he was prim, proper, looking fresh and youthful even. I, on the other hand, was a sweaty pile of american mess.
But it was easy to connect with him. We seem to have similar souls, this old man and I. We would spoke briefly during our walks; genuinely enjoying the scenery and time spent together without much need for talk. Silence was not an uncomfortable feature for either of us.
From bus to bus, crowded city street to crowded city street, we finally made our way across town to the entrance of the Kotel (the hebrew name for the Western Wall). WIthout a cloud in sight, the vibrancy of the blue sky seems to magnify the radiance of the sand worn stones that the ancient city is built from. The glowing light flesh color of the walls give the feeling of life to the ancient structure that surrounds you.
I don’t know how to accurately describe the color that catches my eye the most but I will do my best. The worn out desert green that seems to wrap around all of the soldiers and security personnel that flood the site really leaves an impression on you. It’s an interesting contrast and an important one. “Yes, you are in a holy place” says the sky blue and radiant walls, “but that does not mean you are completely safe” says the green.
But cut past security and the Chasidic Jews offering Tefillin to all the men passing by and there was the wall. Oh man, it’s still a marvel to see, even after multiple visits. Like an ant staring up at a holy sidewalk curb, it’s hard not to be in awe when you see this behemoth. Made from giant stones, one can easily make out crumpled pieces of paper lining the cracks of the wall.
Crumpled pieces of paper!? Are the jews just filthy litter bugs? Can’t they wait to throw out their garbage somewhere else? JESUS!
Actually, it is tradition to write down your prayers and stuff them into the cracks of the wall. And as much as the curious kid in me craved taking some of them out of the wall just to see what other people pray for, I have never actually done so. If the devil exists, then I’m sure he would probably be sharpening his trident right now to put into my ass had it happened.
It was time for me to pray. But I made myself a promise as I walked up to the wall. TODAY I WILL NOT CRY. It is just a self fulfilling prophecy to cry at the Wall, I told myself, and I will see past it.
I made myself some room near the wall surrounded by obviously American men. My uncle has already found a seat close by. It seems as though he has only come for my benefit. I close my eyes. I start trying to empty my mind of thoughts. I put my hands on the wall and I lean in and put my head against it. I go through the usual prayer and I give thanks for all the wonderful things that were happening in my life.
But something was missing. As I was standing there, even though I thought it was all bullshit, I wanted to cry. I wanted to feel SOMETHING. God damnit, I am at the holiest place in the world. I should feel something.
It’s been a long time since I last conceived of this idea of God as an old white man in the clouds that watched over us like a proud father but in that moment I wanted that to be the case. I wanted a sign from someone. Anyone. From the Universe. That I was doing something right. That I was on the right path in life.
But there was nothing.
There was no feeling. No sign. Just.. disappointment. I opened my eyes, aggravated as I was, and looked over to my uncle. He was just sitting there watching me. He looked so peaceful. I walked over and told him I wanted to write a note quickly and then we can get on our way.
I grabbed a pen and ripped out a piece of paper from my notebook. Usually I write entire thanks and wishes on the paper before I stuff them into the wall. But this time was different. The paper was small so I didn’t have much room to write and I was really happy with how everything was going. I was in the middle of one of the greatest trips of my life. I have a supportive and loving family. Amazing friends. Things were really going my way. So I started to write..
And that’s all I wrote.
I folded up the tiny piece of paper and headed back to the wall. But then something happened and to this day I am still not sure what it was. As soon as my hand crossed the threshold of the wall, tears started flowing out of my eyes uncontrollably. I quickly stuffed the crumpled paper into the cracks so I could get my hands to cover my eyes.
Why was this happening? In that moment, I felt.. perfect. I couldn’t stop crying. But I wanted to laugh. I felt whole. I felt hopeful. “I hope this feeling stays forever“, I thought to myself – but I knew it wouldn’t and I stopped worrying about losing it.
My worries seemed to leave me in that instant. I was happy. I was grateful.
Maybe when we stop thinking about all the things we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have, our lives start to change. Maybe gratitude is the key to what I was looking for. Maybe that’s what I was supposed to learn that day.
After contemplating it for a second, I stopped rubbing my eyes, looked up and turned around. That’s when I saw my uncle. Smiling. He seemed to be glowing. Like a saint.
WIth tears welling up in my eyes I smiled back.
I had received my sign.