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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774

A wall runs through it

Galilee Diary #256
October 23, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

We took the participants in our young women’s leadership program for a day’s outing in Jerusalem during Sukkot. These are recent high school graduates, a small (15 girls) cross section of Israel – Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, kibbutzniks and townies. In ancient times, Sukkot was a festival of “aliyah laregel” (pilgrimage) to the Temple; and today, it is the time to visit Jerusalem. There are marches and festivals, and the city is packed with tourists from Israel and abroad - the roads often feel like one giant gridlock.

In the morning we went to the Western Wall plaza, where a mass “birkat kohanim” was held: in many synagogues in Israel, it is the custom on Shabbat (and in some places, every day; in the Diaspora, usually only on holidays) during the last blessing of the amidah prayer, for those who trace their lineage to Aaron – the kohanim – to come forward and recite the priestly blessing over the congregation:

May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace.

-Numbers 6:24-26

On one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, this ceremony is done at the Wall plaza, with hundreds of kohanim blessing tens of thousands of assembled worshippers. The loudspeakers carry the chazzan’s voice clearly, and there is something really very beautiful and impressive about this service, and the unison “amen” of tens of thousands of people. We Jews have largely given up majesty in our worship, leaving it to the Catholics with their cathedrals; we tend to emphasize intimacy. Yet in this mass service in this historic location, one could begin to imagine what we gave up when we lost the Temple with its impressive public worship events. The Wall took on, for a moment, a meaning that transcends its usual nostalgic content… of course, the spiritual balloon deflated a bit when I thought about the hereditary priesthood, and about all the worshippers being men, and when I was struck by the fact that the entire crowd, at least everywhere I was walking, seemed to be American Orthodox Jews. Nevertheless, this meeting of spirit and stone did have a certain power. Some things you just can’t explain.

From there we went to meet a young Moslem lawyer from East Jerusalem, for a first hand look at another wall, the new separation fence running between neighborhoods of Jerusalem. When I visited Israel as a high school student in 1962, I remember being impressed by the walls cutting right through neighborhoods, separating Jordanian East Jerusalem from the Israeli western city; and thus understood well the joy at these walls’ destruction in 1967, and Naomi Shemer’s words in Yerushalayim shel Zahav, written after the 1967 war: “…and now, we’ll again be able to go down to the Dead Sea by the Jericho Road.” So we drove down Jericho Road from the Mount of Olives – to Abu Dis neighborhood – where we came up against a 26 foot high cement wall, snaking through the middle of the neighborhood and making it, once again, impossible to drive to the Dead Sea via the Jericho Road.

We heard about the hardships caused by this barrier for the local population, many of whom have been cut off from school, medical care, livelihood, and family. We saw how it affects the landscape. Some of our group argued that the cost was worth while, if the benefit was the reduction of terrorism; our host suggested that it was not obvious that that was indeed the result of the project. Meanwhile, we watched soldiers checking the identity cards of Palestinians wishing to pass through gates in the wall – and, for good measure, the documents of our host, even though he was not asking to pass through, but had been overheard making disparaging comments about the wall in his explanation to us. And as we stood there, we (and the soldiers) watched a stream of Palestinians nonchalantly walk up to a lower section of the wall, climb up a pile of rocks, jump over, and continue on their way to errands/visits/school/work on the other side. We were all incredulous, to say the least. Some things you just can’t explain.

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