By Naomi Ragen
When I lived in New York City, I never went to the top of the Empire State Building because that was just for tourists. And now, living in Jerusalem, I find that hardly get to the Western Wall. But this year, I decided to take the words of the prayers literally, and visit the Wall, where once pilgrims gathered to offer Passover sacrifices at the Temple.
We joined a mass of people making their way to the Wall, and for a moment — the crowds, the heat, the noise and all the construction going on near the Wall– made me wonder why I’d come. What was so holy about these stones, so special about this crowded, undistinguished space?
And then I stopped looking at the stones, and started looking at the people. I saw two Ethiopian girls in their pretty holiday dresses, and a woman and her elderly mother in a sari. I saw a family of Yemenite Jews, all in their holiday best; and Hasidim resplendent in their sable-trimmed streimels and shiny satin kapotas. There was a man and his adult son wearing identical gold robes with wide,stripped belts- denoting their membership in a special Hasidic sect found only in Jerusalem. There was the tourist in his black Calvin Klein shirt and the girl soldiers with their long ponytails and even longer guns. There were, most of all, children: babies with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, little black haired, dark eyed toddlers, their mothers’ wearing wigs or jeans or summer dresses. I wanted to hug them, the little girls with their crumbling matzo sandwiches, the toddler in his payot and little holiday vest being told by his mother to “pick up his feet” as he inched his way forward.
Suddenly, for the first time perhaps, I saw those around me not as separate individuals, but as a living tapestry of unique, incomparable beauty that is the Jewish people. I saw them, perhaps as God might see them — a precious remnant woven through the ages, outlasting pogroms and inquisitions and holocausts, vitally alive and well and gathered now to visit this holy place, as God requested.
What made this place holy, I realized, wasn’t the stones; it was the people gathered here, united in their longing to touch them. It was the visible, tangible indisputable proof of the ingathering of the exiles from all over the globe that has taken place since the founding of the State; a living miracle that we see clearly every day here in Israel, but seldom let register.
And then, as is my custom, I opened up a book of Psalms and let the pages fall where they would, allowing God to direct me to just the right words. The Psalm I was sent to was 69. And this is what it says: “They that hate me without reason are more than the hairs of my head; mighty are they that would make me numb, that unjustly come forward as my foes so that I might restore that which I have never taken away.”
Writing in the year 1882, the great commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch explains this verse:
“Those who harbored hostile feelings against Israel were in the overwhelming majority. Even worse, the reins of power were in the hands of those who actively desired to paralyze Israel, to hinder it in its every movement, to render it powerless while it was yet alive. They come forward against Israel with trumped-up charges, intent on forcing Israel to restore all that which it had actually acquired by honest and legal means, as if Israel had obtained such possessions by “robbery.” In general, the Jews were denied the right to existence. Everything that a Jew possessed, even if he had acquired it by unimpeachably honest means, was viewed, or at least treated, as loot which had been amassed by robbing other nations.”
But in the end, the Psalmist comforts, “they will obtain the home and the peace which was denied them throughout the rest of the world because of their unswerving loyalty to the One God.”
Happy Passover from the Holy City of Jerusalem, where those who love God now gather to celebrate their freedom to do His will. And next year, may all of you come and join us at the
Wall, to sing your own Psalm, to add your own thread.