October 4, 2019
We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.Romans 8:26
Even when I knew what to pray for. I had listed both thanksgiving and supplications on ripped paper prior to our visit to the Western Wall, Kotel in Hebrew, a place of prayer for both Jews and Christian pilgrims. Jewish people had always believed that divine presence resided at Mount Moriah upon which the Temple was built and eventually destroyed in 70 CE, the sole surviving section of which was this retaining wall. As God’s address, it had been considered the holiest site in Jerusalem.
Sasha, our guide, explained that the Ark of the Covenant, described in the Torah as God’s abode, was originally housed in the First Temple built by King Solomon. When the temple was demolished and plundered by the Babylonians, the Ark disappeared without a trace.
Tradition maintained that the spirit of God abided in this oft-contested place as the Second Temple, the one during Jesus’ time, was built over the ruins. This temple, too, was destroyed just decades later by the Romans to quell a Jewish revolt. As Jesus had prophesied, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; every one will be thrown down.” Only the lowest seven levels of stone of the original Western Wall remained.
How the Jews ascribed holiness to Mount Moriah, now Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was a testament to the deep-rootedness of their history and faith to this geographic site. This was despite the political jurisdiction of the Western Wall changing hands as recently as in 1948 under Jordan and back to Israel in 1967.
Cycles of war and peace, destruction and reconstruction on Temple Mount over the centuries had not shaken but rather shored up long-held Jewish traditions, extending to the black Hasidic suit and large circular fur hat that bearded Orthodox Jewish men wore to the synagogue. A few donned the yarmulke, that characteristically Jewish skullcap. Either way, the idea was to cover the head as a sign of reverence to God.
In the modern egalitarian world, this steadfast grip on tradition made for a glaring old-fashioned segregation of the sexes. A metchitza delineated a smaller section for women within the prayer plaza. Death to patriarchy had no place in Orthodox Judaism. In an old synagogue in Cairo, a loft accessed only from outside was built so that female worshipers stayed out of view in the main hall.
The Wall did separate – men and women, the orthodox and the liberal, the chosen and the heathen. Given such rigid exclusivity, I appreciated the uncharacteristic expression of unity and inclusion, an act of grace even, accorded to Gentile visitors to be allowed at the Wall to pray.
I took tentative steps toward a vacant spot at the Wall with my prayer intentions on hand. It felt awkward that this Baptist Protestant was performing a Catholic practice of submitting prayer letters and doing so in a Jewish holy site.
The moment I laid my hand on ancient stone, this tangible foundation of faith, I tapped, so to speak, into the collective grief of the Jewish people for centuries of desecration and destruction of the Temple. My personal grief, guilt, hurt, despair, and regret all spilled out in a torrent of tears. There was truth to its more popular name – the Wailing Wall.
The prayer intentions I slipped into a crevice between slabs of stone were soon forgotten. A prayer for forgiveness, both to give and to receive, that could only well up from raw gashes of a broken and contrite heart did so quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Forgiveness, I realized, was the deepest expression of love.
As per Sasha’s instruction, after prayer I walked backwards several paces out of respect. I caught a heartwarming sight of a Jewish family in prayer: the father and his two young sons on both sides pressing their foreheads on the Wall. I shot a photo and a bullet prayer of blessing upon them.
My impromptu prayer was an act of contrition. Men in black filled the indoor synagogue beside the prayer plaza, reading the Torah and saying prayers of selichot. Belatedly, I learned that selichot were prayers for forgiveness and repentance said during the period leading up to Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, “a day to atone for the sins of the past,” four days after my visit to the Western Wall.
Perhaps the men were reciting God’s attributes of mercy revealed to Moses as enumerated in the Book of Exodus: compassionate, gracious, forgiving, and abounding in goodness and truth. This was God’s nature even after His chosen people strayed to worship the golden calf. His faithfulness transcended ours. Indeed, the spirit of selichot came over me.
So what happened to my prayer intentions that slipped through the cracks? They were buried along with a thousand others on holy ground at the Jewish Cemetery on the slopes of Mount of Olives as they had likewise been embedded in my heart. Perhaps, in time, those unspoken prayers would well up to my lips through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment….Exodus 34:6-7