Jerusalem 2009 Part II
Old City, Jerusalem. May 2009 –
Friday before dusk I wander down to the Wall – the
Western Wall – where Jews from all over the city and
all over the world will be coming to pray the Shabbat services.
As I make my way down one of the many winding backstairs
that lead from the Rova (the Jewish Quarter in the
Old City of Jerusalem) to the Wall, I discover, halfway
down, a little convenient corner where you can span the
entire 180-degree panorama, seeing people streaming to the
Wall from all directions, framed against the backdrop of
the Temple Mount and the various structures that occupy
the desolate space.
I perch myself in this cleft and stare at a fascinating
spectacle: As the brilliant sun sets over the ancient roofs
and haunted trees of the city, Jews are arriving to the
Wall from every which way: the Dung Gate (Shaar ha’Ashpah)
to the east, the Damascus Gate (Shaar Shechem) to
the west, the Jaffa Gate through the Arab shuk to the southwest,
and down the main stairs from the Rova to the southeast.
Men, women and children of all backgrounds and dress. Tourists,
groups from Gambia, Germany and Oklahoma City, mixed in
with locals and visitors, Jews wearing kipot (yarmulkes,
head-coverings) of every possible size and fabric; Charedim
with kapotos (long coats) and shtreimlach (fur
hats), of different colors and shapes, women with turbans
and sheitlach (wigs), others dressed in modern suits
and skirts, some with hats, black or otherwise, others with
no hats – every persuasion and denomination well
represented – all gathering in the large square that
stands in the shadow of the looming Wall.
Where else can you see a sight like this? There are thousands
of synagogues around the world, but each one is generally
attended by and caters to a particular group. You don’t
usually find much diversity, at least in dress and customs,
in most synagogues. But here, everyone sees this as their
personal shul. It doesn’t hurt that there are
no walled structures to divide the people.
And then, through the large gate to the right, hundreds
of Israeli soldiers come marching in, clad in their distinctive
green uniforms. I’m told later that this is one of
their “off” Shabbosim, when they gather at the
Wall to pray with the multitudes. But they stay initially
apart, singing some particular songs, about Jewish perpetuity
(Am Yisrael Chai) unity (shevet achim gam yachad),
faith (anachnu ma'aminim bnei ma'aminim ve'ein
lanu al mi lehisha'en ela al avinu she’ba’shamaim;
Yisrael, Yisrael betach b'HaShem, ezram umeginam hu),
and the one that brought a lump in my throat – kol ha’olam
kulo gesher tzar me’od (the entire world is a small
narrow bridge): As they finished the first stanza of the
song, they instinctively huddled up together, several hundred
of them, and in unison, raised their voices to the highest
decibel, and sang the second stanza, ve’ha’ikkar, lo
lefached klal (and the main thing is not to fear at
Suddenly, the soldiers all turned their attention to a
young man, not in uniform, sitting at the side, motioning
him to join them. In order to get a better view of what
was happening I climbed down all the steps, down to the
plaza. The young man they were beckoning was in crutches,
clearly a casualty of war, and his fellow soldiers were
lifting him up on their shoulders and dancing to the tune
of anachnu ma'aminim bnei ma'aminim ve'ein lanu al mi
lehisha'en ela al avinu she’ba’shamaim –
we are believers, children of believers, and we have no
one to depend on except our Father in heaven.
There were not many dry eyes amongst those witnessing this
The soldiers then made their way to the Wall and mingled
with the other praying masses.
Four, maybe five thousand people were gathered at the Wall
that evening – and as diverse as the colors of any
Near me, at the top of the plaza a young man and woman
were seemingly oblivious to the entire scene. As I got closer
to them I saw that they were wearing media credentials from
Israeli TV – no cameras or anything, just these two.
I said to them (in Hebrew), “Isn’t it beautiful
to see this gathering of so many Jews from so many different
backgrounds?” One of them snickered, “Don’t
be deceived by appearances. Beneath the surface the different
groups dislike and disrespect each other. And each group
on their own is riddled with corruption and pettiness. Yes,
this is great scene for photo-ops, but I wonder how wholesome
the lives of these different people are when they go back
Whew! Like a sudden splash of cold water, this jolting
dose of cynicism – if you ever needed one –
doused all my warm and idealized “romantic”
Oh yes, I am quite aware of the problems our families and
communities are facing today. I wish I didn’t know
what I did about the divisiveness between different groups,
each claiming a monopoly on their version of Judaism. In
the work I do, I am reminded almost on a daily basis of
the damage done by self-righteous, cloistered communities,
who are great at judging others, at meting out retribution
and at condescension. Systems that ignore abuse and care
more about image than truth. Many children and adults have
been deeply hurt and wounded by some of our “established”
structures. And it is not always a source of pride or easy
to defend the trappings of conformity that dominate certain
Not to suggest that the Jewish world is in any way unique;
most of these problems exist – and are even inherent
– to any group, especially one that is driven by strict
parameters. Just look at the damage done to our economy
by greed and self-interest. Yet for Jews, at least from
the high standard to which I uphold Judaism, anything that
reeks from narrow-mindedness is particularly disturbing.
From the universal perspective of Judaism and its expansive
vision of life – one that has introduced some of the
most fundamental principles of freedom and civilization
to the world – it is shameful and very demeaning to
see the divisiveness of different communities and their
own provincial “small-town politics” (we call
it “klein-shteteldike politik” in Yiddish) or
No one need remind me of these and other unpleasant realities.
But there is something about the broad diversity of the
Jews gathering here at the Wall – a certain magic
– that cannot easily be dismissed with the sober awareness
of internal discords that plague the community.
And then I remember the puzzling and paradoxical Talmudic
statement: “G-d has done charity with the Jewish people
by spreading them out amongst the nations.” Charity?!
The dispersion amongst the nations is considered to be an
aberration, a curse – “because of our sins were
we expelled from our country” and exiled amongst the
nations. Every day we pray for “kibutz goliyot,”
the ingathering and return of the exiles. How then does
the Talmud consider this scattering as Divine charity?!
One simple yet profound answer lays in understanding the
initial root of exile. Why was the Holy Temple destroyed
and the people expelled from their land? Because, says the
Talmud, of baseless divisiveness (sinas chinam).
The people took for granted the holiness in their midst
and were no longer united by its power. They were therefore
no longer worthy of living together in a unified Jerusalem
When people are humble and sublimate themselves to a higher
calling, their powerful commitment permeates their beings
to the point that it tempers their self-interests, not allowing
it to rip the people apart. The people then have established
a healthy climate and deserve to live as a unified community
– diverse but united by a cause greater than, and
one that transcends, individual interests.
However, when this dedication and resulting unity is not
in place, then the curse would be far greater were they
to remain together. Their differing interests would ultimately
bring them to be at each other’s throats until they
would self-destruct. In a corrupt environment, those in
power – not driven by humility – will hurt all
those under their control.
G-d therefore did a great tzedakah – charity – by
dispersing the people, not allowing them to destroy each
other, and not allowing any one individual or entity to
control the entire community. Instead, groups of Jews migrated
to different countries and regions, each building their
own individual community, each with their own infrastructures,
authorities and customs – all based on the general guiding
principles of Torah – with no one community or group controlling
the destiny of the other communities.
In pure times, such dispersion is a curse. In corrupt times,
this dispersion is a blessing. A life saver, actually. The
way to clean out disease is to diversify the gene pool.
Many monarchial families, for instance, suffered from horrible
diseases (namely hemophilia) due to their inbreeding, by
marrying cousins and other imnmediate family. When disease
has entered the system it's critical to not "recycle"
stale air, but to broaden and diversify the genetic pool
through marrying strangers.
Now we stand almost two thousand years later from the time
when the Romans destroyed the second Temple. All that remains
is a partial wall – the Western Wall. Throughout these
two millennia, communities have been built all over the
globe – spreading, diversifying further and further
from generation to generation. This dispersion in itself
is a curse and it has not always led to positive things;
but built into it is a profound immunity system: Like organs
in an infected body, each organ works on building up its
strength, and no one organ, no matter how diseased, can
destroy the others. On the contrary, as an organ gets stronger
it helps heal the other organs as well. When the disease
of exile descended upon the world, G-d in His kindness dispersed
the people, with each community contributing, strengthening
and building up one dimension of the larger organism, and
no one community, no matter how corrupt, can destroy the
Now, here we stand before this Wall, and under its stony
gaze gather Jews from every possible background –
Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Chassidim, Litvish, Orthodox, modern
Orthodox, non-affiliated, and everything in between, over
and under, each group subdivided into many more splintered
groups; Minyanim galore: Carelbach, Yeshivat HaKotel, Mizrachi.
The list goes on and on.
Each group, no doubt, has their challenges. But collectively,
as we look from heaven – from the Divine perspective
– we can see a great charity: Each community contributes
one piece of an elaborate mosaic. Some are strong in their
devotion, some in their academia, some in prayer, while
others in good deeds and charity; some in love and kindness,
others in discipline; some in chesed, others in gevurah
or tiferet, some in netzach, others in hod, yesod or malchus.
Some in their non-compromise, others in their compromises;
some in joy, others in introspection. Some synagogues are
great for Simchat Torah – and even their Rosh Hashana
looks like Simchat Torah; and others have their Simchat
Torah look like Rosh Hashana.
Like different musical notes in a large composition, each
community, group or even individual, contributes his or
her unique note.
Obviously, there are some who may have wandered away from
the standard – from the basic Torah axioms necessary
to keep the organism alive. Diversity is not enough to preserve
Judaism. The diversity has to be based on unwavering principles
and solid foundations that are not changeable. Like music,
even when you play your unique note it does have its parameters
as a musical note. But even when the music may have been
compromised, we can always learn things from each other.
Many lessons can be gleaned from the very challenges that
we all uniquely face.
And each one, with their piece of the mosaic, with their
note, doing their part, contributing to a greater good –
we create a healthier whole, which ultimately will allow
us to return, each from our corner of the universe where
we have survived and developed our particular methods of
growth, and reunite in one unified, indivisible Jerusalem,
with the Holy Temple at its center – this time indestructible,
because it grew and was bred from the diversity, and having
withstood the “disease” that caused the exile
in the first place, now the organism will have built an
immunity to all forms of divisiveness.
I gaze at the sight before me – the Jews from all
corners of the world who have gathered here. Despite their
own differences and even intolerance of each other –
despite themselves and their own awareness (or lack thereof)
their very diversity, coming together at this Wall, is a
testimony to the Divine kindness and foresight, reflecting
a higher truth that would preserve the nation through its
I gaze at the sight before me and see a microcosm of times
soon to come when we will, in our rich diversity, stand
as one, in a united Jerusalem.