I touched the Western Wall and felt nothing. It was cool to the touch and smooth. But God, if God was in this place, remained silent.
I felt alone and slightly embarrassed, waiting for some sort of divine revelation – a chill in the air, a booming voice, a whispered call of welcome. But God was quiet and, for the moment, the Wall held tightly to its ancient secrets.
The Kotel is among the holiest places in the world for Jews, one of the few remaining links to the ancient Temple built by King Solomon. It was destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. The building of the Second Temple began nearly a century later and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
One of the only parts of the structure remaining is a portion of the platform, the Western Wall, sun-bleached and worn by time, but a magnet for the religious, the righteous, fanatics and the curious. I was one of the curious during a trip to Israel several years ago, sponsored by the Jewish federation here in the Land of Cotton.
It was growing dark and Shabbat was approaching. The plaza in front of the Wall was filling with a colorful mix of people – haredim in gold caftans and fur hats, others in black coats and black fedoras; a small group of New Age Jews in white shirts and pants; and tourists in jeans and sweat shirts.
Many approached the Wall, caressing the stones before joining one of the numerous services that were just beginning. Prayer hung heavily in the air.
Tradition holds that this is where Adam, Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice to God, and Noah, too, and where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac. This is also where Jacob dreamed of a ladder filled with angels moving between heaven and earth. And some Christians, Jews and Muslims believe it is this very spot where all the prayers of the entire world come and are elevated to heaven.
But I remained silent, no prayer on my lips, overwhelmed and intimidated by the spiritual pageantry playing out before me. And then God smiled.
It was the anniversary of my father's death, his yahrzeit, and there's a special prayer for such occasions, a prayer that can only be said in the presence of at least 10 other Jews. Finding a minyan, a prayer quorum, was of course no problem. But there was no way I was going to join one of the services by myself. I needed help.
Hirsch Minkowicz, one of the Chabad rabbis on the trip, found me standing alone and led me over to a group of men finishing the afternoon service. Another rabbi from the Land of Cotton, Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody, loaned me his prayer book.
So it was that I was able to stand before the Western Wall on a Friday afternoon in late November, fondly remembering my father as I recited the mourner's kaddish. The ancient prayer, which is in Aramaic, expresses the hope that God's name will be sanctified and the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth.
My words joined with the rich stew of prayers soaring skyward and for a moment I felt a connection with this familiar, yet alien place, and the warm presence of a cosmic force. And then the yeshiva bochers came marching into the plaza and God's smile turned to laughter.
There were probably 30 or so of them, mostly in their teens and early 20s, students at a nearby school overlooking the Wall. They could have been on an outing at Perimeter Mall or on the prowl in Buckhead, but this night they were welcoming the Jewish Sabbath, singing a festive song about Jerusalem.
They stopped in the middle of the plaza, continued their singing and formed a circle. And then they danced, moving slowly in a circle, stomping their feet.
I hesitated for only a moment before joining the group and was immediately welcomed. I hummed the familiar tune they sang, unable to recall the words, shuffled my feet and watched the world whiz by – fur-hatted haredim and sweat shirt-wearing tourists, soldiers and cops, students and rabbis. And in the background the Wall, stolid and solid, a cosmic link between the present and past.
The sky grew dark and the first stars appeared. It was Shabbat and God was in this place, in fact had always been here. I had, quite simply, been looking in the wrong direction.
CENTER OF THE WORLD: The Western Wall is all that remains of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, a magnet for the religious and righteous, fanatics and tourists.