At the age of fourteen I was taken on my first trip to Israel. I remember coming up to the Wailing Wall and I remember feeling the same chain of emotions I have felt on every visit since. As I look over the plaza from distance I feel bemused by ‘all the fuss’ paid to a bunch of bricks. As I get closer the wall remains unmoving and I feel equally unmoved; the Haredim in their piety and the tourists in their cardboard ‘skullcaps’ leave me equally cold and my mind is drawn to the way the wall is co-opted by the ultra-orthodox and turned into a gender divided space where women are arrested for the crimes of wearing a Tallit and want to read from the Torah.
But then, finally, I get close up to the stones, so close that the stones are the only thing I see, so close I feel their heat, doubtless ‘only’ the heat of the Jerusalem sun, but also a heat that evokes ancient horrific destruction. Stood there, with my nose pressed up against the stones everything else just melts away. It’s just me, my history as a Jew and my relationship with my God. The stones want to know what I have to say.
There is a glorious short story told by the Yiddish master of letters, Y.L. Peretz about Bontse the Silent who never complained about anything his entire life. Eventually he dies and in heavens there is tremendous excitement at the arrival of such a man known for his stoicism in the face of struggle. His reward is to name his paradise and with the heavenly court rapt Bontse decides he would like a nice cup of tea and some toast. Bontse, it seems, was no great righteous sufferer, he just didn’t have very much to say. I wonder how true that is for many of us. When it is just us and the stones, what do we say for ourselves, our existence as Jews and our relationships with God. As a fourteen year old I remember saying the Shema, it was the only piece of Hebrew I knew off by heart.
Of course personal prayer, in English, private and individual is important, but we don’t just stand before the Kottel as individuals, we stand there as Jews. What do you say as a Jew? What do you know off by heart (the English idiom matches the Hebrew of the Shema perfectly – ‘you shall place these words on your heart’)? It’s a question I’ve been wondering about since a conversation with our Chazan this week. His thoughts are that so few of our members are in Shul in time to hear the Shema on a Shabbat morning that perhaps even the Shema is lost. Shacharit is the most important part of the Shabbat morning service, ironic that it’s the least well attended. Some time ago we ran a special education service on a Shabbat morning, perhaps we need to do that again because without a relationship with words ‘placed on our hearts’ I don’t know what we should say when we stand before the Kottel.
Saturday morning services begin at 9:15. I hope you’ll be able to join us then.