Parsha Shemot: At the Kotel
Karen and I had the good fortune of going to Israel this past week. Her mother lives in Herzliya so it’s a good excuse to visit. We spent the first few days in Jerusalem so we could visit with Avital who was studying there until she returned with us.
We went to the Kotel for Friday night tefillah, prayers. The Kotel on Erev Shabbat is always the best and I constantly tell people that it’s the greatest time to visit as it is brimming and teaming with every type of Jew under the sun. And brimming and teaming it was.
The wide-path decline into the plaza heading toward the main area in front of the Wall was itself packed with minyanim. So much so that I had to squeeze through to enter into the area in front of the Kotel proper.
But once I got down there, truth be told, I found it to be a bit of a culture shock. I felt almost like I didn’t belong.
It’s not like this was my first Kotel visit. I have been there literally hundreds of times. I went to Aish in the summer of 1979, located literally step from The Wall, and was there for many years. It was a time when the Old City of Jerusalem was probably in its heyday. Israel only recaptured the area in 1967, so it was just 12 years later. It took some time to clear and rebuild the old Jewish Quarter, so by the time I got there it really was a new and pristine place.
During those years in the early 80’s there seemed to be a much more diverse crowd than the one last Friday night. Back then there were many Chassidik minyanim, Sephardi minyanim and others. Shlomo Carlebach disciples would periodically have their hippie minyan which would last so long that if you came back after your dinner, they were still there, singing and dancing away. And almost every week, a neighbouring yeshiva to Aish, Yeshivat HaKotel would come down the wide set of stairways, six students abreast holding each other, shoulder to shoulder, singing. They would make their way to the Kotel, dance in a circle and then continue the prayer service. It was such a spectacle that tourists would show up awaiting for them to arrive.
But this past Friday night there was none of that. I saw one or two Chassidik minyanim and joined a tiny Sephardi one for a while. A few soldiers sprinkled here and there but most of the crowd seemed to be American gap-year students and English was the predominant language being spoken. They prayed and sang fervently and almost all of them at one point or another broke out into the jumping-up-and-down-on-the-spot that young people like to do at concerts these days.
I looked around and it dawned on me that probably more than 80% of the people there were not even born when I would come to the Kotel 40 years earlier. Am I sounding too much like an old fuddy-duddy? Perhaps. I felt a little bit like the Talmudic sage and personality, Choni HaMe’agel – Choni the Circle Maker who got that nickname by drawing a circle around himself and telling God he would not budge from there until God would send rains during a drought.
After this incident, the Talmud relates that Choni was bothered by a verse likening the 70-year exile between the 1st and 2nd Temples to being in a dream-like state. He wondered about the meaning of that verse from Psalms and how could anyone sleep and dream for such a long period of time. Well, soon after he laid down to nap and indeed didn’t wake up until 70 years later.
He got up and went back to his home, marched in and asked about his son but was told he was no longer alive but that his grandson was. He announced to the household that he had returned but of course they didn’t believe him. And who could blame them? Some old quack walks into your house claiming to be your long-lost grandfather of 70 years ago, you would also dismiss him out of hand.
Dejected he then went to his Beit Midrash, study hall. When he walked in, they were even quoting his Torah insights and praising him saying that whatever difficulties the rabbis had, Choni would resolve. “I am he!!” he happily and proudly declared, revealing to them the very man they had just praised. “Yeah right”, was the reaction and they too didn’t believe him nor give him the time of day or show him any respect.
With no family nor any students or contemporaries who knew or recognized him, Choni was completely depressed and asked that God should have mercy on him, whereupon he died of the loneliness of a broken heart.
And this is a little bit of how I felt when I went to the Kotel this past Friday night. The Kotel-world that I knew and loved, and was once so familiar with, was now gone and no longer. It got to the point that I really didn’t feel like being there so much and indeed quickly finished the prayers and started to head out.
But unlike Choni, as I left I did finally encounter someone who I knew and who knew me. And there he was – Jeff Seidel, an old fixture that has been hanging around the Kotel since the 80’s, pairing young Jewish travellers with Shabbat hosts to give them a taste of the beauty and power of Shabbat. There he was, still doing his thing. I forgot to look to see if he was wearing his signature saddle shoes, but I am sure he was. (The shoe so marks his identity that it’s featured at the top of his website, jeffseidel.com)
We shmuzzed for a while, reminisced a bit; he told me the difference between his work back then when students used to gravitate to the Kotel and he would stand on a soap-box and send them off to families for Shabbat dinner, but now it’s all done with pre-reservations via computer. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time and interrupt his holy work and we said our goodbyes.
And as I walked away from Jeff and thought about what he was still doing after all these years, I had a change of heart and my mind was at ease. Not only because I finally met someone I knew from the past, but because it reminded me of what the Kotel was really all about.
Its magic of reconnecting Jews to their history, to their heritage, to their Torah and to their Father in Heaven who loves them and awaits their return. That’s what it did for so many for thousands of years. That’s what it did for my generation of Aish students and others back in the 80’s. And that’s what it continues to do today to every Jew who is fortunate enough to visit and be at that holy place where heaven and earth touch one another.
Friday night, it was late
I was walking you home
We got down to the gate
And I was dreaming of the night
Would it turn out right?
We’ll go dancing in the dark
Walking through the park
-Little River Band