The Western Wall

As I started to unpack in an earlier post, my recent trip to Israel was nothing short of amazing and at the same time totally overwhelming. When I was preparing to go on the trip, a lot of people told me about the powerful emotions they experienced in various places. Everyone had their favorite place, but most of them said seeing the tomb was their most impactful experience. Having no context for visiting such a monumental place, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and tried not to think about what I would feel.

You should know that I’m not a super emotional person; I rarely cry, and my highs aren’t super high and my lows aren’t that low (this great in some ways, awful in others). But I also have this weird thing that I do internally when I am about to experience something that could be exciting. For some reason, when I am looking forward to something I try to push down my emotions as much as possible so I don’t set myself up for disappointment. I know it’s messed up, but it’s been my modus operandi for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure how I got into the habit, but I do know that my efforts quite often backfire: I tend miss out on feeling anything significant because I have suppressed feelings so far down in order to play it safe. Like the dog hiding a bone so well even he can’t find it, it’s a distorted way to try to manage my own expectations. There was a little of that going on in this situation.

As we toured the sites in Israel, I quickly realized that even though I didn’t know what to expect, my actual capacity for being impacted by the things I was experiencing was extremely limited. When you stand in front of several fire hydrants a day to get a drink, it’s hard to take in the exact characteristics of the water from each. Most of the time I was thoughtful, observant and reflective, just trying to take everything in so I could sit and soak in the impact later. Except at the Wester Wall.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is one of the most intense places in the world. It is as if the ancient rocks are nervously looking around because of the tension they feel. Herod the Great (who rebuilt the temple around 40 BC) had the brilliant insight that the topography of a mountain is not ideal for supporting huge stone structures. So he essentially surrounded the mountain with a giant retaining wall and built a flat courtyard on top for the temple buildings. This platform is what is known as the Temple Mount.

When the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the temple in 70 AD, the temple buildings were destroyed but the structure that supported the temple (retaining wall and courtyard) were left intact. In later years Muslim occupants of Jerusalem built huge structures on this mountain, one a mosque and another a shrine that is the most prominent feature in any photograph of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock. The top of the Temple Mount is thus owned by Israel and controlled exclusively by Muslims. That pretty much sums it up.

You have likely seen pictures of people praying at the Wester Wall, also called the Wailing Wall. Devout Jews from all over the world travel there to see, touch, and pray next to the only standing rocks that were closest in proximity to the temple (and thus the Holy of Holies). Not the wall of the temple itself, but the wall of the temple mount that is nearest to where the temple probably  stood. It is a visceral place. You can hear praying, singing, and yes, even wailing. Many people write down prayers on little slips of paper and stick them into the cracks of the wall.

So there I was, plain old emotionally-suppressed me, walking up to this wall when I was overcome with emotion. I still don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the collective feeling of longing that hung palpably in the air around me. Maybe it was the density of hundreds of years of pilgrims having stood in that spot before me. Maybe it was the tragic sense of futility in the midst of the most extreme devotion. I stood there at the wall, put my hand on the stone, worn smooth by millions of hands, and hot tears formed in my eyes. I was at a loss as to what to say, but I managed to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the only thing that seemed appropriate in that moment.

It was hard to walk away from there. After lingering for a while in the sacred air, I walked up the ramp to rejoin the group. I’m still puzzled about why it hit me so hard. Jesus didn’t (“according to tradition”) heal someone in that spot. There was no specifically historical reason to feel impacted. Just the sheer weight of it all coming crashing down in an instant. I think the feeling that stands out the most is gratitude. I’m grateful I got to stand there in such a special place and pray a few less-than-adequate prayers. Some people dream their whole lives to do that. But I’m grateful mostly for the living hope that I have in a living God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I’m grateful that God is faithful to his promises and has taken up residence in us through the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful that he hears our prayers and is our refuge and strength.

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