The Western Wall is almost empty and pretty cold at 6:30 on this Tuesday morning. A cat slinks away a long crack in one of the huge stones in the men’s section but none of the black-clad men busy praying loudly in small clusters notice. A few women stand in solitary silent prayer, apart from each other, across the partition. A sanitation cleaner sweeps the floor all the way up to the wall itself, shoos the cat, and adds, along with the discarded tissues, all the carefully folded notes that were tucked into the cracks in the wall but were unlucky enough to fall to the ground during the night. *
I’m here with my family to celebrate my 13 year old nephew’s Bar Mitzvah season- today he’s binding himself in leather straps for the first time. Even my father, in a wheelchair, didn’t want to miss on this almost last grandson’s rite of passage.
We find a Table right alongside the partition, the women peer through the cracks in the fence, and the business as usual morning prayers progress with efficient speed. Cameras click on both sides of the partition, and some laughs, and it’s nice to be with the family, but I find it hard to join them in the prayers. I walk off to the side, close my eyes.
It’s not just that this is not my kind of prayer experience or valued form of contemplation. Too many words. Not a fan of speed read through psalms and pages, not anymore. It doesn’t work for me. And definitely not here.
I’ve come here all my life, as kid and soldier and student, sworn in to defend the homeland and detained for co-ed prayers, and I’ve prayed here and cried here, alone, and with others.
Most memorably and recently with rage.
I’ve been coming to the wall in the past months and years on the new moon, to support the Women of the Wall in their right fight for dignity and religious expression.
This has become an immensely important and complex symoblic fight for religious freedom in Israel. and it’s about to get more complicated.
As of two months ago the women can’t even enter this area with a prayer shawl, let alone wear one. Nor pray aloud.
And here I am today , a privileged Jewish male, free to pray as loudly as I want to, in my (‘It needs to be ironed” says my mother later) own talit worn any way I choose.
I can pray here freely – but actually I can’t.
How can someone pray in a place that is silencing the prayer of another?
I know this fight is right.
And when you think about it, the fight for religious freedom of expression is at the heart of the Jewish story – it’s the core of the Exodus saga and also found in this week’s Torah text – Bo.
From the get-go, Moses’ core demand of Pharaoh – Let My People Go – is not for freedom from labor- it’s for freedom to worship – or labor – for their own God.
let My people go, So They Will Worship Me Exodus 10:3
The Hebrew word for ‘worship’ and ‘labor’ is the same – Avodah. The same word used to describe the slavery is the word used to articulate the demand for time off for religious freedom, a human dignity of choice of how to worship.
We always think of Moses as this great national liberator – and that does happen – but the initial fight is for religious freedom. It isn’t clear if the demand to go worship is a pretense for escaping or a genuine plea for group bonding on religious grounds as first step to national unity. Or all of the above. Either way Egypt refuses. And then it’s too late.
Mirror, Mirror, on the Western Wall: Who’s the Pharaoh here?
It’s also the Pharaoh, btw, past the locusts and down to the last two strikes- that finally relents to the Hebraic call for worship but on condition that only the men go. Moses refuses: Everybody goes. Together. Ex. 10:11
Pigeons fly above us, someone quotes a poem by Yehuda Amichai about pigeons at the wall, and soon we will go home for bagels and coffee and a simple celebration and maybe one day this will all be something else and no prayers will be thrown into the trash.
And then I close my eyes again and try, and ask, for inner peace, and the courage to hope, and for all prayers to be prayed, here and everywhere – freely. For all.
(*Now these personal petitions are trash. Do they still matter? Does the magic work if the notes are no longer tucked in the cracks? does ‘it work’ if they stay?
and what does ‘work’ mean here anyway?
It works, we say, when something clicks right. Zeh Oved. And it’s the same, sometimes , with our prayers, true expressions of the soul that come from within, personal poetry, words cross our lips or written out by our fingers and tucked in a wall or talked to the stones or the sky. It’s like hitting SEND on a message you’ve crafted and are ready to send to the world. IT works when you’ve done your best to articulate your needs, request, suggestion, prayer. Regardless of reply, the rest will happen as it will.)
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org