225. The Western Wall: Prayers, Conflict and Rest

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So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; 10 for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. [Hebrews 4:9-11NRSV]

The Western Wall, Jerusalem (L & centre); The Western Wall Tunnels

The Western Wall is one of Judaism’s holiest sites. It is a must-see site of international attraction in Jerusalem.

A trip by Christian pilgrims to the Wall is highly recommended, preferably timed on a Friday evening when the Jewish population comes out in huge numbers after their Sabbath meal. We can then see different types of Jews at the Western Wall Plaza – the orthodox Jews who are always well dressed and accompanied by families; the young and liberal Jews who wear jeans, singing and dancing and having fun; male and, lo and behold, female rabbis as well; and so on. We were not so lucky this time round, as the weather was foul and the normal crowd was so depleted as to be almost non-existent. On our previous pilgrimage trip, the weather was brilliant, and some in our group were delighted to be able to follow the guide to walk up to the Wall to place in the crevices written prayers many of which were brought on behalf of friends and relatives from back home.

Status Quo on the Temple Mount and the Western Wall

Known as Kotel in Hebrew, the Western Wall is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. What we see is but a small remnant segment of a far longer ancient retaining wall that underlay what is known as the Second Temple (Temple of Herod) in Jerusalem. As the last existing part of the Second Temple that stood within the period of 516 BCE and 70 CE, this wall is held sacred by Jews from all over the world as a place of prayer and pilgrimage.

This wall was not part of the Temple as such, but originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple by Herod the Great. The result of that expansion scheme saw the completion of a retaining wall that then encased a steep hill known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount. The Western Wall is considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount.

  • According to the Bible, the Jewish Templesstood on the Temple Mount. The First Temple was built by King Solomon the son of King David in 957 BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered and part of the population of the Kingdom of Judah was taken into exile to Babylon.
  • The SecondTemple began on a modest scale by a number of returnee-Jews from the Babylonian exile, supervised by governor Zerubbabel. During the reign of Herod the Great, however, this Temple was completely overhauled and refurbished, its structures greatly enlarged with the addition of magnificent edifices and facades. Herod completed the process by building an almost rectangular set of retaining walls that accommodated earth fills to give the natural hill a geometrically regular shape.
  • While the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, the Romans destroyed the Second Templeand Jerusalem in 70 BCE as a strong signal of Roman wrath against an ongoing Jewish revolt.
  • Ever since, Jewish tradition maintains the belief that it is here that the Third and final Templewill also be built. Hence, the location is the holiest site in Judaism and is the place Jews turn towards during prayer. Understandably, this wall is now a site of pilgrimage, lamentation, and prayer by  The intense offering of lamentations and prayers result in this wall being termed also as the Wailing Wall.
  • The scene of the present Temple Mount, entirely Muslim-controlled, is a flat plaza conspicuously dominated by three Islamic buildings – the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rockand the Dome of the Chain – as well as four minarets. This Mount is accessible through eleven gates, ten reserved for Muslims and one for non-Muslims. Conflicting claims by both Judaism and Islam easily turn this site into one of the most contested religious sites in the world. There is an urgent and constant need to keep the “status quo”, an expression we hear a great deal of in relation to many religious sites in the Holy Land. Keeping the status quo prevents, at least for now, this major focal point of Arab-Israeli conflict from boiling over into open war. So, on the one hand, the site is managed by an Islamic trust; on the other hand, security comes under the Israelis. Entry to the Wall area is strictly regulated.
Western Wall Tunnels

While the Western Wall is a must-see site in Jerusalem, the Western Wall Tunnels is equally a site that should be included on a pilgrimage itinerary. It is best visited in the early morning. A new visitor will find it a very interesting and informative tour and well worth the time (about 90 minutes in duration).

From a brief official guide description:

  • “The Western Wall of the Temple Mount is one of the most magnificent and significant remnants in Jerusalem from the days of the Second Temple, destroyed approximately 2,000 years ago. It stretches along almost half a kilometer, but today, the part visible to all at the Western Wall Plaza is a mere 70 meters of it. The tour of the Western Wall Tunnels allows visitors to reach the segments of the Wall hidden from view, and to touch the original and special stones that tell the story of the Jewish nation. Visitors to the Western Wall Tunnels walk through ancient and fascinating subterranean spaces with exquisite archeological findings, such as large stone arches, water pits, an ancient water aqueduct that ends at the Strouthion Pool, and more.”

During our walk on foot through the narrow corridor, the guide pointed out the largest stone upon which the rest of the stones of the Western Wall rest. This stone, weighing about 570 tons, is 13.6 meters long, 3.5 meters high, and 4 meters deep.

The roughly 90-minute guided tour is very interesting and informative.

Reflection:

1. Face Your “Wall”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812) has taught that although God is everywhere, God’s light shines stronger in some places than in others. Imagine the human body, even though a person is everywhere in one’s body, one is usually more conscious of one’s mind than of one’s toes. So too, in the universe that God created, there are bound to be places, times and states of being where our consciousness of God is heightened. There, we can pray better. For the Jews, we must understand, the Temple on the Temple Mount was chosen by God as His dwelling place in the time of King David. The Western Wall being the only remnant left standing, the specialness of that Wall to the Jews is beyond question. So Jews wail, lament and pray there, while Christians go stuff prayer petitions into the Wall’s crevices.

Walls, however, may be used for entirely different purposes. A Shaolin monk, for example, instructs a pilgrim to his temple up on a remote mountain to literally stand and face the wall in order to overcome the pilgrim’s “wall” in his heart and mind. And that interior wall is the wall of so much anger, hatred and revenge the relief from which the pilgrim has come all the way to seek counsel. The pilgrim is to stand in front of the concrete wall, so the monk instructs, to face his own interior and spiritual “wall”, until that wall finally crumbles and he finds peace.

Jeff is one who can never “punish” his little darling girl (what can you do other than “give up” any soft idea of “punishing” her when she looks at you with great big tears?) when she misbehaves or is being unreasonable. So it never ceases to amaze him to see how some young fathers within the extended family can “harden their hearts” as they apply a strict house rule that requires a pretty little darling girl to go “stand at the corner”, “facing the wall”, and not to step out of the two-by-two mat for ten minutes. This “tough” punishment seems to work though.

2. Sabbath Rest as a Gorgeous Manifestation of a God-Loving People

In Israel, everywhere we turn it seems like nothing is free from politics and religions and therefore everything seems marked by strife and controversies. But human relationships do not always have to be so violent and hateful. Our visits to Jerusalem and its Old City, the Western Wall and the Western Wall Tunnels have given us a closer feel, and in a more human way, of the reality of the Old City of Jerusalem in its various aspects. More importantly, we also came away from these visits with a greater appreciation of the spiritual potential that Jerusalem and its Old City hold for all people of good will.

In particular, political and religious conflicts aside, we are always impressed by the total obedience of the Jews to keep the Sabbath rest. To be sure, the stop-at-every-floor hotel lifts may be a bit of a nuisance. And the fact that our breakfast is cold leaves a bit to be desired. Yet, in Israel, come Sabbath, it is so good to see the Jewish families steadfastly coming together to share communion at table, enjoying each other’s company,  remembering God and giving blessings. Instinctively, we feel that it is good and positive for humanity to take a Sabbath Rest from creative activities, respecting the God of creation. A Sabbath rest is a God-ordained respite from strife and competition.

The Letter to the Hebrews weaves together three themes of rest: the rest promised to Israel from enemies, the weekly Sabbath, and the spiritual rest through Christ. This reminds us of an occasional scene back home at the Kuching Waterfront Darul Hana Bridge where we regularly do our early morning walk. “Darul Hana” means a place of peace and tranquility in Arabic.

  • There is a young local Malay Muslim man who appears but occasionally at one of the two resting areas up on the bridge. Whenever he does appear, he sits alone on the floor reading the Quran or blowing his clarinet, seemingly oblivious of the noise and the people around him. On one very early morning when it was still dark and drizzling and there was not another soul around, Jeff chanced across this young man again and the two lone and quiet-seeking souls started chatting. He plays the clarinet, he said, pointing at the growing traffic below, as a reminder to himself and anyone who cares to listen, that our modern life does not have to be filled with breakneck activities, strife and oppressive noises; that there is an alternative to din and clatter and an endless abuse of the eardrums; and that a dose of soothing music is such an immense value-supplement to our daily life. Jeff told him that he is drawn to the vantage point on the bridge early each morning to feel the caressing breeze blowing in his face. This is, for Jeff, the gift of a therapeutic rest from the uplifting Spirit of God who banishes dark emotions and oppressive feelings from the head, the heart and the soul and lifts his spirit once again for a new day. Just as a major theme in the Jewish Sabbath Rest is joy, so too this rest in the Spirit is for Jeff a joyful celebration of the goodness of God, a celebration that always fills his heart with immense gratitude and, with a bit of luck, fills the eyes with occasional tears that burst forth from joy and gratitude. No matter what happens in life, all will be well,” the Ruach Elohim (Spirit of God) that originally hovered over the waters , the surface of the deep, the chaos (Genesis 1:2), waiting to begin the work of creation, now whispers ever so gently.  In God, all will be well. In the meantime, the Spirit comforts the heart with hope, and hope is the reason for continued existence even when everything seems quite hopeless. A gift which the world cannot give, this “rest” in and with the Spirit is for us Christians a precious spiritual rest in Christ.

3. Rest in God when the going gets tough

Writing on the Rule of Saint Benedict, Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, cautions that we cannot rush life. She quotes St Benedict who says, “When difficult things are commanded, endure and do not grow weary.” There are some things that simply must be borne. There are some mountains in life that must be climbed but can only be climbed one boulder, one level at a time, Sr. Joan writes. It is necessary to learn this fourth degree of humility, which insists that we bear with patience the burden of visions envisioned but not yet accomplished.

In what we do or hope to achieve, when the going gets tough, St Paul offers profound and yet ready guide. St Paul knows better than anybody else what it is like to hit the walls in Christian missionary work. His remarkable spiritual insight is immensely helpful in counseling work: “We know that all things work for the good, for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Many people live a tortured life (sometimes permanent) which they may not reveal to others; some go through a particularly rough patch at some point of their lives. They all seriously need a word that offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of pain and seeming hopelessness. They need to, they want to, trust God, despite suffocating signs to the contrary that God can still be trusted. But St Paul gloriously acclaims the trustworthiness of God in “all things” – good and bad; good times and hard times.  “All things” include our successes and failures, happy events and traumatic ones, joys and sorrows, glorious stories and truncated symphonies – they all contribute to a pool of experiences in life that mold us, and help us grow and mature. In times of suffering, if we but patiently endure the hard times and lift them up to God, all these experiences will eventually work together for the good, even if it takes time and much heart-pain for us to see the positive side right now. Everything will pass, St Paul counsels. Rest in God; trust in His Providence. All will be well.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, June 2019. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.

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