I found myself at the Kotel, or Western Wall, yesterday. Even though I live within walking distance of this profoundly moving site, the holiest in all Judaism, I don’t actually go very often. But a Bar Mitzvah invitation from American friends saw us get up early and walk through the Old City.
We took a shortcut through the Arab souk, deserted and a bit eerie so early in the morning. I was glad when we reached the turnoff to the security area leading to the Kotel. To my surprise, extra guards were stationed before the metal detector area. They insisted I open my coat, which I did willingly, imagining they were checking for a suicide belt. Hey, you never know. Only later did I realize that was not what they were worried about. No, the extra guards were not searching for detonators or wires. They were looking for a prayer shawl, or G-d forbid, a Torah scroll. Because it was Rosh Chodesh, the holiday of the new month, the day that Women of the Wall have made it their custom to pray together at the Kotel, such items have become contraband.
The first indication that something was awry was the noise. A ghastly high-pitched shrieking of whistles that made you feel as if your head was going to explode. Only when I parted from my husband and made my way to the women’s section did I encounter the reason for the noise. Five or six women in various outfits denoting religious devotion, were blowing whistles in the most vicious way I have ever heard. It was a rape whistle. A fire whistle. And it created a disturbance which I found unbearable.
I approached them. Politely. At first.
Why, I asked, are you disturbing the prayers at this holy place? No one can think or pray with this kind of noise.
The youngest among this bunch deigned to look at me, tossing her head towards a group of about fifty women who were standing together and praying quietly. “We are making war against them!” She spoke with a conspiratorial pride and glee. “If we don’t stop them, then the men will come and take over the women’s section!”
That sounded perfectly ridiculous.
What you are doing, I told her, not so politely, is a terrible sin for which you are going to have to ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur! It’s causeless hatred. These women are doing nothing more than praying. And for this, you are disturbing everyone here making it impossible for anyone to pray.
Her smile faded, her ballooning self-righteousness pricked. But not so the other women, who shrieked on. I approached the loudest one, trying to talk to her, until finally I lost my temper and grabbed the whistle out of her mouth. I was immediately accosted by a male guard, who suddenly appeared out of nowhere, tut-tutting me for my behavior. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head like a playground supervisor during recess. “Let’s not get physical.”
Why don’t you make them stop? I retorted. He shrugged, indicating that was not his problem. Only I was his problem. By this time, the Women of the Wall – whose potential prayer shawl-wearing was apparently endangering the entire religious establishment of Israel to the extent that there were now specially trained goon squads on alert all over the place – had folded their prayer shawls and were getting ready to leave. Before going, they sang Hatikva. I joined them, moved.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” I told the shriekers as we disbanded. Finally, they put away their whistles. Later, I would see on the evening news how one of them actually tried putting her arm around someone’s throat! I was filled with anger and disgust.
I joined the Bar Mitzvah party. And as I sat there reciting Hallel, the special prayer of praise for G-d, someone came barreling across the packed area, stepping on my toes and almost knocking me over in her rush to reach a prime spot in front of the Wall itself.
I looked up, astonished. From the top of her head to the tip of her toes, her ample body was encased in the most flesh-concealing of outfits. Not a hair showed. Not hint of flesh. A real saint, I thought, with contempt.
Whether it was my “ouch” or the sensation under her feet of someone else’s bones, she finally acknowledged me in the following way: “Tell me you forgive me,” she ordered.
What could I do? I was after all, at the Kotel. So I nodded. But that wasn’t good enough.
“Say it out loud,” she demanded.
“I forgive you,” I told her grudgingly. “Just don’t do it again.”
Just then, to my surprise, I saw that one of the women standing near her up close to the Wall was my elderly neighbor.
I was surprised. In the almost decade I’d known her, I’d never seen any outward display of religious observance. She usually wore slacks, and even at the Wall, her hair was uncovered. She didn’t use the Sabbath elevator, and I’d never seen her go to synagogue on any occasion.
She hugged me and I hugged her back.
“I love being here,” she said, answering my unspoken question. “It fills my soul with such joy.”
Her words had a profound effect on me. Suddenly, I forgot about the shriekers and my injured toes. I felt a sudden peacefulness descend on me as I looked up at the old stones. The sunlight was strong and warm. The Bar Mitzvah boy chanted his Torah portion with confidence in his childish voice while his mother and grandmother leaned over the mechitzah, kvelling.
And for a moment, I felt God’s presence descend over us. It was all-encompassing and full of compassion. I felt His forgiveness of the shriekers misplaced piety and the barreling, inconsiderate rush of the toe-crusher in her eagerness to touch the holy stones. I too could be forgiven for my hostility, for grabbing a whistle out of a stranger’s mouth and for judging my neighbor’s closeness to God by the most superficial standards.
I was sorry and ashamed that we could not all give our Father as much pleasure as the little brown sparrows and swooping doves settling gently side by side, perhaps the only creatures in this holy place who knew how to behave.