Late afternoon, early evening. Daylight is fading. Lights that illuminate the Wailing Wall push back the growing dark. The Wall, though emmence, is only a one hundred eighty-seven-foot section of the western side of the ancient wall that rings the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount, center of attention in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Old City roughly centered in modern Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the heart center of Israel. Centers within centers. Chambers of the heart of Judaism. A priceless jewel in the eye of Muslims. A touchstone to Christianity and an often, irritating mystery to the rest of the world.
The Temple Mount – site of three temples – the first, built by Jewish, King Solomon. The second by the Roman appointee, Herod. And a third temple, so far existing only in the minds of Jews, Christians, and fearful hearts of Muslims.
Walking here from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Jane and I had descended a long series of stairs, passing through a security check point as we reached the plaza below. The plaza, a stone paved expanse built to accommodate crowds exceeding one hundred thousand – the immense crowds that gather on holidays – holy days. It stretches out and away from the Wall at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. At its North West corner, a waist-high retainer of stone blocks bisects the edge of the plaza preventing falls to the prayer floor, two meters below. The prayer floor, paved with white marble, stretches the full length and thirty meters back from the actual Wall. Capped with an angle cut stone lip, the retaining wall is comfortable to lean against as many do, content to watch the ever-shifting spectacle. Wherever you were in the world that night, if you’re Jewish your attention was on this place – this gathering. Attention and intention are key words. I was about to learn something but not nearly all there is to understand of their significance. Arriving early, Jane and I had this front row view as the spectacle unfolded around us – perfect for events that would mark the evening and set a further progression of events in motion.
The year was 2000 – Y2K. The lights hadn’t gone out. Even so – the world was a darker place. These first High Holy Days of the new millennium had already been stained, just the day before, when PM candidate, Ariel Sharon had walked up and into the Temple Mount. A thousand or more Muslims went crazy, claiming Sharon’s presence as justification for more riots – the second intifada. After Sharon’s visit, unsuspecting worshipers standing at the prayer wall below had been showered with fist size stones thrown by Muslims gathered on the temple grounds, above. Large numbers of police and military units had been brought in to discourage further attacks. Still, there was no guarantee of safety. The blood of those injured the day before – lots of blood – was visible where it had run and pooled, drying between the paving stones. Despite these tensions, Jerusalem’s largest gathering of the year swirled around us, growing as night fell. What had happened could not keep the faithful from gathering to pray.
Jane and I were there to witness the Jewish world’s most important day of the year at its epicenter. Having done a little research, it was not by chance that we’d come early enough to be standing at the front. From here we had an unobstructed view of a thousand or more men as they milled about, raising a din as the talked and prayed. Behind us, tens of thousands more had already streamed into the large plaza. A relative few, going directly to the prayer floor fronting the wall, while others were content stand back, to carry on their own conversations or quietly honor the occasion as suited them.
According to Jewish tradition each new day begins at sundown, making that evening the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is the one day in the Jewish calendar given over to confession and forgiveness of sins, to enter the new year absolved of guilt for the previous year’s mistakes.
I had drifted. Moving farther to the left, away from my friend, alternately standing and leaning, watching the activity in front of me. More than just watching I was thinking how unfortunate it was, all these men so anxiously pleading, pledging repentance and praying again. Each one, earnestly attempting to ensure that he had brought everything to account. I was thinking that Christians had a better way. One died for the sins of all, and if these guys could just see this they could all walk away free. The Christian alternative, as I saw it, was tidier – much more economical. All my Christian understanding stood with me, leaning comfortably against the retaining wall – a wall of stone and one of belief separated me from all those sincere but misguided Jewish men.
Without warning, a loud voice broke through my thought – the voice seeming to come from a very big, very tall man standing directly behind of me. With no warning, no preceding twinge of conscience, these hard words, were spoken, sharp with disapproval and delivered with absolute authority.
“STOP! STOP JUDGING! YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT THIS IS ABOUT!
The voice cut through the noise of the crowd, several hundred people standing so close that movement was difficult. Turning, I looked behind, expecting to see a massive man scowling down at me. There was no one out of the ordinary. As loud as the commands had been, apparently, I was the only one who had heard them. Hearing voices is schizophrenia territory, but I knew what I’d heard, knew that they had been directed at me. Validated beyond logic, a I knew that a powerful, unseen individual was aware of not pleased by my thoughts. Reacting in a way I would have never expected, in the moments after the initial shock I felt a kind of thrill, call it the gratification of infamy. From experience I can tell you that a message from a divine source, even a harsh rebuke such as this can make you feel really good if you take it the right way. Or maybe I just in shock.
Below, the action was intense as larger numbers crowded onto the prayer floor. Men stood everywhere, all with their heads covered. Some wearing wide brimmed streimals and fedoras – others, a simple knitted kippa or their complimentary, paper equivalent for tourists. Many had gleaming white prayer shawls around their shoulders which could be pulled up over their heads to form a tent under which they met privately with God. Alone or in small groups men prayed, leaning against the wall or back some distance around tables full of prayer books, all bowing from the waist rhythmically, repeatedly, the style unique to Jewish prayer.
Shaken but excited by what had happened, I jostled my way back. Jane was standing where I’d left her, watching the sea of people. Having just managed to make it to where she stood, there was no time to say anything before the Divine hand reached out to grab me one more time. Standing below and at least twenty feet away, one among many rabbis stood surrounded by a dozen men that he was leading. Without explanation this man turned and looked up, searching faces and pointing his finger as if to sort one from another until his attention fixed on me. Shouting over the din, he looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you know what we are doing?”
It was a freeze frame moment. Feeling completely hollow and exposed, I was still literally vibrating from the power of the voice that had just shouted me down, foretelling the answer to this Rabbi’s question.
“No, I… I guess I don’t,” I stammered.
In response, his arm still raised and finger pointing for emphasis, he began to explain the activities and significance of that night. I tried to listen but was not catching it all. By my clothing and answers to his questions I was clearly not Jewish. So, forget the disembodied voice that had just scalded my ears, the Rabbi’s behavior made no sense. That on this of all nights he would turn from the men he was leading, turn and pick me from a group of thousands for an impromptu lecture? It got even stranger.
Seeing that I was not tracking, he said, “Wait a minute, I’ll come up there.” It took full five minutes for him to push his way through all the people. First, back toward the wall, then over to the exit ramp, circling up and around, he edged his way through to where we stood and continued speaking.
“As we pray here tonight, he said, we are opening a hole in the heavens – a channel, connecting earth and heaven, a connection for all people, people all around the world.” He said. There was more, much more. After a few minutes another man in an expensive black suit and wide flat brimmed hat had joined him. One on one side, one on the other, they tag teamed – each picking up the narrative if the other so much as paused. I was too overwhelmed to pay attention; I remember little of what was said.
What was is that I had been spoken to by a disembodied voice telling me that I did not know what I thought I knew – telling me that I was wrong to imagine that my views were correct or that they encompassed the whole of spiritual truth. And I was most wrong to have held a condescending attitude from which I looked down on these men. Their love of God, even more, their single-minded devotion overrode any difference of doctrine.
Their words tiring and I soon heard the limitation of the ideas they expressed. Condescension for other faiths leaked through – an indication that they were making the same mistake as I. Realizing that they were the tool of the “Voice,” I listened respectfully, but was really just waiting for them to finish. What they said was not as important as the fact that they had been placed in front of me to reinforce the evenings real message. I had been told to suspend my judgements. The Voice had implied that what any of us thought we knew was partial; at best, only a small part of what was happening around us, and probably beyond the understanding of us all.
What happened that night drove home the point I now see – the fact that we all fell short when confronted by divine authority. At the end of the day, none of us were being transported beyond mortality like Enoch or leading with the authority and miraculous power entrusted to Moses. Individuals who, following instructions, had truly put on the mind of Christ should stand out as clearly as night fire on a hilltop. Scanning the horizon, I saw no one.