Monday, March 3, 2014

Stones & Souls: What is the Holy? Is It the Sacred Object or Place Itself-- Or Something More?

            August, 1971, Jerusalem’s Old City: the day was steaming hot, I recall. I weighed 240 pounds, gained mainly by stuffing my face while sitting in front of the TV for a full month prior to flying to Israel for My Junior College Year Abroad. The Israeli counselors had brought us—young Jews, from all over the world, students at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, most of us visiting Israel for the first time—to Jerusalem, to the Timeless, Eternal City, there to wander through the Arab Shuk, the Ancient Market, redolent with odors of fresh cheese and old leather, with our Muslim cousins eyeing us suspiciously from within their tiny shops.
            Finally, we climbed a flight of stone steps, made a right turn, and entered a brand-new, open-air plaza, made up of brown-yellow-gold pavement carved from the ubiquitous Jerusalem stone—pavement laid only since the triumphant liberation of the Old City by the valiant Israeli paratroops just four short years before, when their precious (and mainly secular) blood literally flowed in the streets, fighting a stubborn Arab Legion, inch by bloody inch, mile by bloody mile, house by house, street by street. Most of my travel partners, young Jews from Argentina, New Zealand, England, South Africa, and Brooklyn, hurried down the plaza steps to approach the Wall—slowly, slowly, as though its massive, historical, spiritual bulk might suddenly arise into the very Heavens—and reverently kiss its sacred stones.
            I hung back, hot, irritated, bone-tired, physically exhausted from a month of sitting on my parents’ couch and eating chips and dip while watching crappy rerun programs on TV. Sweat coursed down my brow, most of it soaking into the heavy, dark-blue denim bush hat I had bought for this Trip of a Lifetime, the Yeshiva boy come to the Land of His Forefathers and Foremothers, the very dust of which, I recalled, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi (c.1075-1141) told us, was holy. Indeed, that poet, philosopher and martyr (I had written a paper about his turgid and convoluted lifework, The Kuzari, for a course in Jewish Medieval Philosophy which, true to its title, was dank, moldy-smelling, and labyrinthine) was said to have given out his last drop of strength kneeling before the sacred stones of the Wall, preparing to kiss it, when an Arab horseman rode up and crushed the hapless rabbi-philosopher beneath the hooves of his mount. (I found out later that this was mere legend, and the luckless wanderer-poet had died in Egypt, far away from his much-yearned-for destination.)
            The murmurs of the devout—black-clad rabbis, swaying Chasidim, perambulating beggars, shorts-clad tourists, and bewigged balebusteh-housewives—reached my ears. An unforgiving Zionist sun beat down upon my head;  I squinted through the drops of perspiration, but saw no Holy Spirit descending upon the Wall; I thought of Jonah and his gourd vine.
And God said to Jonah, “Are thou greatly angry for losing the shade of the gourd?
            And Jonah said, “I am greatly angry, so much so, that I could die.”
“So that’s the Wall,” I remember thinking, “God! I need a Coke.”
            After drinking off most of the cooling drink in one gulp, I schlepped my corpulent self to the Wall, where I said a few prayers and tore a piece of paper out of my wallet-miscellany, scribbled a few lines in my Hebrew Schoolboy’s patois, and stuffed it into a high, hard-to-reach crack. I certainly did not wish for any other pilgrim to extract and read my mail to God—I had heard stories of callous Jerusalem schoolboys who stole it, for a joke.
            And so I met, and so I left, the Wall.
            Months later, things were different. I had lost weight—mainly through lack of access to food: my mother’s well-stocked fridge was half-a-world away, and the university cafeteria, like most university cafeterias, sold indescribable agglomerations of (kosher) food which did odd things to my Diasporic tummy, and I became a prodigious walker. I shuttled between my university and Jerusalem on different weekends, visiting either friends who were attending Hebrew University (I had not chosen that school, believing it to be too big and impersonal for my tastes) or one of the downtown yeshivote. When spending Shabbat at the latter school, a typical Saturday-night exchange with my fellow yeshiva bochrim (scholars) went something like this:
Me: What do you guys want to do now that Shabbat is over?
            My friends: Let’s go daven at the Kotel/Wall.
            Me: Oh, c’mon, Guys, it’s Saturday night. Let’s do something special.
            They: OK, let’s go out to get a falafel, and then go daven at the Wall.
            Me: Guys, listen to me. Saturday night. Can’t we do something really, REALLY special?
            They: OK, this is what we’ll do, Dave. First, we’ll go to a movie. Next, we’ll get a falafel. And last, we’ll go daven at the Wall.

            And that is what we always ended up doing. Being a regular at the Wall made it—how can I explain?—less and less of a Spiritual Moment for me, and more like an Outdoor Synagogue, where there was never a problem finding a minyan. None of us realized, or cared, that the Wall had become an Orthodox shul with 24/7 minyanim. Hey, we were Orthodox, and men, so who cared?
            My greatest sense of holiness at the Wall came, not from its stones itself, but from a memory that is very rare and precious to me. My parents, who never traveled—not even to the extent of going out to see a movie or show together (well, they did go out once or twice, but Dad was never eager to socialize, except where His Shul Buddies were concerned, and where Mom was the Sisterhood President-for-Life), came to Israel the year I was abroad; I’m happy that they made the trip, if only to see me, because it kind of changed their lives.
            My parents and I never talked about faith. My father, an industrial chemist, did not puzzle about God. Saul Mark, a man of science who knew that, if he added chemical A to chemicals B and C, he would always get the same result, was happy to know Which Prayers to read on What Holiday. I used to say that he knew Practical Religion, while I dealt with the Why; that is, Theoretical Religion. He could tell you What Time to Light Candles; I could tell you Why to Do It. Even when I stopped being Orthodox and started to lean Conservative, he never got angry about it—it was a bittersweet adjustment for the two of us.
            But that night, the night I took my parents to the Wall, I will always remember. It was spring; they had come in March, just about the time that the weather in Jerusalem starts to warm up, and the spring rains come, the ones that are supposed to moisten the earth, for the spring planting—that was the sole bit of agricultural information I ever learned from the Siddur, the prayerbook.
            My parents and I waited until long after Shabbat—under no circumstances would my Dad ever, ever drive on Shabbos; he was that sort of Orthodox Jew, and it didn’t matter where he was—and took a cab straight down to the Wall Plaza. There were high-arc-sodium spotlights all around the open space, reflecting off the rain-puddles in the stone pavement, and the Wall gleaming in the middle of the plaza, like a great golden jewel—a topaz, almost.
            My parents had never seen it; for me, it was like an old friend. They got out of the cab, slowly, slowly, while I paid the driver, and he drove off. We three walked together toward the Wall. It was late at night by the time we got there; no one else was there, except, perhaps a stray davener or two, and the requisite, bored-looking soldiers and cops.
            It was the same stones, the same pile of rock standing, layer upon layer, agleam in the night, with a big old Jerusalem moon above, and lights glinting from the Old City and far off and away to Jordan.
            My Mom started to cry, and Dad’s shoulders began to shake, which amazed me: he was never much of a crier. I put my arms around them: the son, the only son, who had flown off to Israel, their Holy Land, their Promised Land, the Land that they faced when they davened, in Rabbi N.’s little old shul, there on Henry Street, in the Old Lower East Side. And we stood there together, crying, laughing, and davening.
            I’m not altogether sure what happened next. But this is my point—there always has to be a point: the stones are not what Possesses the Holiness. No: sorry, R’ Yehuda HaLevi. The people who daven, who pray, are the ones who bring the Holiness with them, when they come in, and when they depart. Without this Holiness, without this feeling—whether at the Wall, or in a shul, or when the person carrying the Torah, the Sacred Scroll, carries it around—it is the people kissing the Torah who are the Holy Ones. The Scroll by itself—we are the Ones who make it holy. I am saying this with all the Love and Respect for Tradition that I can muster, for all the years of studying Torah and Judaism and Israel that I can bring.
            It is the People who are Holy, not the Places or Objects. When we speak of Sacred Space, it is We who bring it, who make it Sacred. We bring the Torah; we make God come down and Light the Sacred Fire that Consumes the Offering. And what is the Offering We Bring? It is the Heart; God wants the Heart.
And so may it continue; so may it continue, from this time forth and forever.