What Frum Jews Get Wrong About the Kotel
A few months ago I had the privilege of visiting Eretz Yisrael to celebrate my nieces Bas Mitzvah. Aside from the pleasure of being back in Eretz Yisrael and the simcha of seeing family and reconnecting with friends, there was another detail which made trip so meaningful. Aliza and I decided that I would take our daughter Ayelet along for a week of Abba-daughter time.
The last time that Ayelet had been in Israel was almost nine years ago, so we were both excited to share the joy and wonder of experiencing Eretz Yisrael as if for the first time.
Naturally, we set aside a full day to visit the Old City and the Kotel.
As we walked through Shaar Yafo, I pointed out the bullet holes from 1967. We discussed the centrality and eternal importance of this place to our nation. We spoke about Yerushalayim from the days of David and Shlomo, and the tragedies of the First and Second Destructions at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans.
We walked through the Rova, discussing the slow return of our people in the past thousand years. The yearnings and returning of our greatest teachers and leaders: The stories of the Rambam and the Ramban, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the Shelah HaKadosh, the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon and the Chassidim of the Maggid of Mezritch.
We spoke about the miracles of Yom Yerushalayim, and our need to be grateful to Hashem that we are alive today see the rebirth of our ancient capital city, and the fulfillment of the words of the Nevi'im.
Truth be told, I probably over did it. (I guess that at this stage of my life I'm a bigger nerd than Ayelet is. Then again, she's only eleven. I still have high hopes that all my kids will join me in my nerdy interests.)
Despite her father's ramblings, Ayelet was taken by the sights, sounds and smells of Yerushalayim. (And of course, Golda's Ice Cream makes every experience amazing.)
As we got closer to the stairs leading down to the Kotel, we took out our Kriyah shirts. It's such a stark contrast – the hustle and bustle of the Old City, contrasted with tearing Kriyah. The duality of these emotions are new to Klal Yisrael. The Rishonim who visited Eretz Yisrael only saw destruction. We have merited resurrection as well.
We rounded the corner and took in the magnificent view of the Kotel and Har HaBayis; and made sure to FaceTime Aliza so we could both be part of Ayelet's excitement.
Slowly we made our way down the stairs. (Abba, there's a lot of stairs here... We're not coming back up this way right? Right?!)
We walked through security, and entered the Kotel plaza.
Then something happened, which I never expected to happen to me.
Suddenly, I very much wished that there was a place next to the Wall where I could stand next to my daughter. I didn't want her to be alone having her first experience at the Kotel.
In that moment, I realized that the debates and fights about the Kotel are far deeper and more complex than I had ever imagined.
I began to wonder about the single mothers who might not be able to see their sons putting on Tefillin, and the young couples who cannot stand together when coming to beg Hashem to bless them with children.
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, it important to understand that the Kotel has the Kedusha of a Beis Knesses – at minimum. As Jews who understand the value, importance and eternal nature of Halacha, there is no valid halachik argument in favor of removing the Mechitza at the Kotel. The Kedusha of that space demands that we set our own wants and needs aside and recognize that we approach the Palace of the King with trepidation; abiding by His rules.
This had never been a problem for me before. But that day I realized that if I wanted to speak to Hashem in that place of great connection, I would have to overcome my own emotional needs as well as those of my daughter. For the first time, my coming to the Kotel demanded a Korban – a sacrifice of my own needs and agendas.
I don't have a solution to the intractable problems of observing Halacha while also making the Kotel accessible to all forms of Jewish services. But I do have a renewed appreciation for the challenge.
Perhaps, beneath the anger, rhetoric and resentment, we could stand to appreciate how even those Jews who are so distant from observing Torah and Mitzvos are still inexplicably drawn to the Makom HaMikdash. Is it so hard to imagine that somewhere, far beyond the sectarianism and political chess, every Jew just wants to feel at home in the presence of Hashem?
Seeing the world through this lens might make our next visit to the Kotel a little different.
On Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan, many have the custom of saying the Tefillah of the Shelah for our children. But the Shelah HaKadosh (עשרת הדברות, מסכת יומא, דרך חיים) tells us that in addition to davening for ourselves and our children there is another group of Jews which we need to daven for:
וכשם שחייב האדם להתפלל על עצמו, כך חייב להתפלל על פושעי ישראל, כדאיתא בסוף פ”ק דסוטה (יד, א) ולפושעים יפגיע (ישעיה נג, יב), מלמד שהיה משה רבינו מבקש רחמים על פושעי ישראל שישובו בתשובה, ושבו.
The same way that each person is obligated to daven for themselves, so too, they are obligated to daven for the sinners amongst the Jewish people... that Hashem should be merciful to them that they should return in Teshuva.
This Yom Yerushalayim, the fights for control over Yerushalayim continue. And of course, we should still continue to fight for Halacha. But with a little empathy we might merit to shift our goals. Rather than hoping and davening for Frum Jews to win, we might begin to daven for Hashem to help all of His people return to Him.
Perhaps that's the piece that we're still missing; the reason we are still tearing Kriyah. Perhaps by committing to see each other with a new set of eyes, Hashem will bless us to see His complete return to Yerushalayim as well.