June 8, 2011
I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait.
And in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
More than the watchmen for the morning;
This passage of Psalm 130 came to mind as I stood before the Western Wall and watched a mass of people pray, sing, and converse before the remnant of a great temple.
I woke up at 3:30AM after six hours of fitful sleep. At 4AM Sister A was waiting for me at the gate and as I approached she said with her thick French accent, “what are you doing? We are crazy.”
She’s been doing this for decades, having lived in Israel now for 42 years. Sister K and her two friends from Poland were already in the car. I got in and off we went down the narrow street, then back up another hill towards Jerusalem. There were pilgrims already walking on the road. And as we approached the Old City, we saw more pilgrims, typically walking in groups of men or women.
We parked near the Damascus Gate, which is the closest to the Mea Shearim, a very conservative Jewish neighborhood. As we approached the gate we joined the steady stream of men, dressed in black suits, heading to the Old City. Some wore wide-brimmed black hats; others had these large round furry ones called shtreimels that have historical ties to European Jews. Right before the gate there was a group of young men dancing in a circle, singing loudly and happily. There was chanting, clapping, and sounds of celebration.
When we entered the Old City, I recognized the street that we were on, but with all the Muslim shops closed and shuttered. We paused for a moment, as a happy group of men came by, one was holding some sort of large object covered with a white cloth. It was the Torah, being taken to the Kotel.
When we arrived at the square, I was surprised at how small it was. There were two lines of fences before the famous Western Wall, likely to help with the crowds. Another division was made perpendicular to the wall, to separate the men from the women. Behind that division and further back from the wall, the people mixed freely. Many teenagers were there, and they gathered to chat and flirt with one another. From time to time, I could hear American accents, and saw other foreigners there who were also observing.
I wish I could have taken pictures, but it would have been a great offense. So I simply observed the people around me. Some were concentrated on their prayers, others were chatty, some were silent and still. They stood in groups, with their communities or families. Behind and above us, were more people watching from the buildings facing the wall.
The sky behind the wall began to lighten; dawn was breaking. By this point the square was nearly full with several thousand pilgrams. About a quarter to 6, we made our way back to the car. The streets were empty now as most of the pilgrims now have made it to the square.
We got back to Ein Kerem at quarter past 6 and I had about an hour of sleep before going to breakfast and starting work.
Though I may not understand all that I saw, I know that I’ll never forget it. I got to see the Jewish feast of Shavuot at the Western Wall, at dawn.
Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.