Jerusalem, the holiest city on our planet, is an intersection of more ideals and people and culture than you can imagine. To the left of the old city is a green agriculture-filled land, populated and modern, politically present and in most places, wealthy. To the right of the old city is the brown of the desert, barren and rugged, ancient and quiet, absent of political interests and in most places, absence of wealth.
In the middle – uniting the two – is the Gold of Jerusalem. Here, the physical and the spiritual are meant to unite. The Jews and non-Jews are supposed to come together. In the same way that Israel is a bottle neck for an incredible bird migration, Jerusalem is the bottle neck of some of the world’s most prominent faiths.
At the heart of this bottle neck is the Western Wall. The holiest place on earth. It is a structure nearly 3,000 years old, an intersection of ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a crossroads between Muhammad, the Jews, and Jesus. Standing 62 feet high, the stone structure’s rights have been violently fought for in the name of God for centuries.
It is a place where hundreds if not thousands of Jews can be found in song and dance on Shabbat, a place where Pope John Paul II has left a prayer message, a place that for 19 years in the 20th century belonged to the Arabic state of Jordan.
What few people know is that this 62 foot high, 187 foot wide wall is nothing more than a fraction of the entire Western Wall. Even in the section of the wall held tightly in the plaza, few are conscious that the wall actually runs an additional 43 feet underground to its foundation. The rock you see is nothing more than a glimpse of the wall itself. Outside the plaza, the “western” portion of the wall that can be found above ground continues to stretch for nearly 1,600 feet.
Although it is 1,600 feet of stone, it is just another fraction of what the Western Wall stands for. The wall is a symbol of community, of survival, of Hashem. In its existence, the Wall stands for the roots of human history – a place where we began to see the stars and wonder, to question the idea that we lived in a world full of accidents. As the controversy proves, the Wall’s sanctity is not just valued by one sect or another; millions feel its history symbolizes the roots of their people.
Yet, even if you take the people who know the history of the wall, you still have not scraped the surface. This is because even fewer people know what it’s like to feel the smooth limestone edges of its rock. Even fewer know the energy that runs from the tips of your fingers to the base of your spine when you feel it’s presence for the first time, when it’s history overwhelms you with feelings of pride, privilege and humility, knowing that the reality of your hands on this ancient rock is in itself a blessing – maybe not from God – but a blessing from the people who lost their lives so you could stand there.
In Kabbalah, it is taught that each person is an entire universe. The weight of this claim is worth some meditation. Consider your perception of the universe, of the galaxies you see in science fiction movies and read about in Steven Hawking books. You perceive them to be so beyond our comprehension, so incredibly complex and with such depth that our measly little human brain can hardly wrap our minds around it. Yet, the universe doesn’t have feelings. The planets do not rotate out of want or need. We, humans, full of soul and memory and art and failure and desire are the essence of complexity. Each person in this world lives alone in the house of their heart, the passing world just a series of interactions that may come and go or may stay for awhile. Yet, when you walk down the street or through the grocery store, do you consider this? That each of those people you see have a history that runs thousands and thousands of years back? That each have an infinite amount of relationships and connections to the world around them, that each have cheated and lied and stolen and repented and now stand idly in a moment that suddenly seems beyond the complexity that a universe can offer? This is because they are the universe. They are a universe.
Now, consider yourself at the center of human history – Jerusalem. Hands against that same limestone rock, a setting sun on your neck, ancient songs and prayers being sung in your ear, and suddenly you feel an absolute connection to the path that put you in this great structure’s shadow, The Western Wall. As you stand there, it is impossible not to consider all of those Universes that sacrificed life and limb, that spent hours and days and months and years praying and wishing and hoping that you, that I, could return to this place to celebrate the moments right before the sun sets on a Friday evening, the moments leading into Shabbat. It is utterly overwhelming, and uncontrollably inspiring.
The sound of the Hebrew tongue inspires my sense of family, of community. The desert heat and rough terrain inspire a tough mindset. The grounds that have been walked on by the most influential of monotheistic characters inspire my spirituality. The active, intense political environment inspires my fiery views on liberal politics. The young soldiers who sacrifice their early 20s in unison inspire my bravery. And even now, in the wake of Israel, with a group of 40 Jewish Americans, I am inspired by hope for the future of this Jewish nation, one whose hardships I now realize run deeper and with more consistency than I had ever imagined.
When someone asks me what being at the Western Wall was like, I can only say that it was an awakening. I do not know if it was an awakening to God, to myself, to others, or simply to the realities of this beautiful thing we call life – but I do know that in many ways, I feel like I was sleeping until the moment my hands touched that rock. In many ways, we may all be sleeping, missing the opportunities to explore the Universes we walk through each and every day.
For Israel, the donors who made my trip possible, and the incredible Universes I saw along the way.