Coffee into Theorems

Friday, June 3nd, 2005

Ok, I'm way behind, and I'm sure the odds at the bookies are not in favor of my finishing a complete record of my trip to Israel. But no saying "I told you so" yet. I haven't given up yet, even though I'd rather be working on something else right now. This entry starts on the afternoon of Day 6. We'll see how far I get.

If you're just tuning in, I left our intrepid heroes driving into with about an hour left before sundown. We spent the first part of the day rushing through all our plans so that we'd get to the hotel in time for the Sabbath. The original plan was to visit the Western Wall as the last stop of the day, which actually struck me as kind of odd considering that visiting the Wall was also on the agenda for Monday. The reasoning seemed to be that our first impression of Jerusalem, generally considered the highlight of the tour, should be a big one, instead of just checking into a hotel and not doing much (since it would be Shabbat). It was a noble thought, but it caused for an awful lot of headache with scheduling.

The Western Wall, being the closest standing structure to the site of the ancient Hebrew Temple, is considered by most Jews the holiest place in the world. As such, there was a lot of build up and expectation around the visit. Many people had planned on wearing nicer clothing (rather than the casual, trudge-around-the-city clothes that we were currently wearing.) It's generally accepted that you should cover your knees and shoulders when visiting the Wall, but there was no strict dress code. Still, when it was let known that we wouldn't be able to stop at the hotel first to change clothes, some were disappointed. But that disappointment didn't last long. This was a major highlight of the trip, and being stuck in jeans instead of slacks wasn't about to ruin anyone's experience.

There was an airport-style security checkpoint before we got to the wall, but we they barely glanced at us as we entered after our tour guide whispered the magic words "Taglit Birthright" into the guard's ear. Security always seemed to get more lax as soon as the word "Taglit" was uttered just about everywhere.

The reputation that the Wall has earned is a bit of an oddity as far as I am concerned. The structure surrounding the ancient Temple was very large, and much of the external walls are still standing. But there are almost no tourists at the south wall, while a particular section of the West Wall is crowded with people praying or slipping notes into the cracks of the walls. It is true that the section of the western wall that people think of as The Western Wall is the closest to where the temple proper stood, it strikes me as odd that it's the only part of the structure that gets any religious attention whatsoever. One would think that the Southern Wall would be considered very holy as well, perhaps not as holy as the Western Wall, but still pretty darn holy. But it just hasn't received the same attention. And if you ask me, I think that the thing that truly makes the Wall holy has nothing to do with its proximity to the site of the ancient temple, but everything to do with the way our people treat the Wall. It is talked about as holy. Every minyan in the world turns to face the Wall when saying the most important prayers of the Jewish faith. Many make pilgrimage to this location, and when we get here, we try to think holy thoughts. That's what makes the place holy. If you were to look at it by itself, it's just a wall. A very old wall, but still just a wall. But you'll never get to look at just it. It will always be surrounded by worshippers, tourists, and pilgrims, both in physicality and in thought.

I'd been thinking about this part of the trip off and on for several days now. I was had a bit of a dilemna. As I've said before, I'm not a religious person; I don't believe in God, and I always feel awkward during prayer because of this. What was I supposed to do when I got to the wall? Obviously I wanted to see the wall. It's significance is enormous and the site is fascinating to me on an objective level. I wondered if my interest in the wall was so secular that it would be considered sacriligeous for me to approach the Wall, much less touch it. Obviously nobody around me would know that I wasn't in deep prayer, thanking the Lord for his creations and asking him to make our stay here as pleasant as reasonable, but it is not my intent to disrespect the beliefs of the rest of my people, even if I think they are mostly untrue, often silly, and occasionally damaging. And besides, what did I want to touch the wall for anyway? If I'm not about to talk to God, what's the point in getting that close? I imagined myself standing back from the wall while others went to it to pray.

That would be fine by me, I decided, but then I started visualizing the conversations my actions would inevitably inspire. I never lied about my beliefs to anyone on this trip, but I hadn't been advertising them either. As much as I enjoy being the center of attention, I didn't think it would be appropriate to seek out that kind of interest. If I stood back while others went to pray, I would almost immediately be asked my reasons. I could easily sum up my reasons into a short answer: "I am not a religious Jew, and I do not want to disrespect the beliefs of those who are." At that point, the conversation would not end, but it would branch off in one of several possible directions, none of which I really wanted to discuss. I might have to explain why I personally can consider myself a Jew if I don't believe in God and I don't practice the vast majority of the traditions. Or I might have to explain that I know that many of the people here wouldn't care if I approached the wall and that I'm really not approaching the wall because I don't want to be giving the impression that I'm praying when I'm not. So I'd really be saying that I don't want to be a liar, even indirectly. And I might get into an extremely long conversation explaining all of these things, and if the person I was talking to was perceptive enough, I might even admit that what I'm really trying to avoid is giving other people the impression that I'm a liar even though there's no possible way they could ever know what I was thinking as I stood there in front of the wall.

And the thought of having this conversation there in front of the Wall bothered me. I usually enjoy discussing my personal philosophy with others, if they're willing to listen and have enough intelligence and tolerance to understand, even if they disagree. But I really didn't want to have this conversation (bear with me on the self-self-examination triple-guessing here,) and I didn't want to send the message that what I wanted to do was have everyone listen to my personal philosophies for a while. Especially not right in front of The Wall, which means so much to so many people. I sometimes (not often, but sometimes) worry about how big everyone thinks my ego is. I have a fairly high opinion of my self in some areas, and so I try to be modest in word and action. At the same time, however, I try not to be falsely modest. I try not to disparage myself inappropriately, but I might draw attention to any faults I might have that serve to counteract whatever positive personal aspects were being implied at the moment. Sometimes I just try to avoid trying to be the center of attention, as in this case. It just seemed inappropriate.

So I was back to considering approaching the Wall. What would I do when I got there? Would I put a note in the Wall? I couldn't just pretend to pray, that would be too much, even to avoid being the center of attention for a little while. Maybe I could do the next best thing to prayer, something that had essentially the same purpose without actually being a monologue directed at a supreme being. What do people do when they pray? Sometimes they go through the motions of the traditional prayers, but when they stop to pray in their own words, or at least in their own thoughts, what is it that they do? I thought about it and decided that good parts of the type of prayer used at this holy site were two-fold. First is an expression of thanks to God for creating the good things in the world, and second is a request for relief from those things in the world that cause difficulty. (In retrospect, I left out a third, and very important facet of prayer, namely that of remorse for past decisions that should have been made otherwise, but I don't hold myself in contempt for that oversight.) So my "prayer" would be an appreciation of that which is good in the world and regret for that which causes suffering. So I borrowed a piece of paper from a friend and scribbled out a note with those thoughts before getting off the bus.

Even with this new resolve, my brain was a mess of thoughts as I approached the wall. There were many people, praying quietly or out loud, by themselves or together. With the people praying about, it wasn't quiet, but every noise seemed purposeful. Nobody was having an idle conversation. There were worshippers everywhere, but always there seemed to be room for another to approach the wall. Schooldesks were arrayed a respectful distance from the wall, laden with prayer books and nobody was keeping an eye out for them. No one was about to steal them, and if someone had, he probably needed it more than whoever provided them. A snippet of joyous song would drift over from the left, and a young man dressed all in black with the merest wisp of a beard would dovet dramatically and his mumbled prayers would become audible for the briefest of moments. A white man in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting a free cardboard yarmulke, searched the wall for an appropriate place to stick his note, and a group of men of all ages with their heads bowed in prayer would simultaneously speak a somber but confident "Amen" in response to someone else's unheard prayer.

I stepped up to a spot on the wall and placed both my hands on it, above my head. I placed my forehead to the wall and thought, "What am I thankful for?" "Kira." The answer was immediate and there was no hesitation, nor was there any of the constant internal bickering that usually goes around in my head. "Why is she so wonderful?" I asked myself. I did not think the answer in words, and if I had, it would make the job of recording these experiences much easier. Certainly there were words that I thought: "intelligent," "beautiful," "caring," and "wonderful," this last word filling the buffer of my verbal mind and repeating itself "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful" while the rest of me tried to put a finger on why. Without words I thought about how good she is to me, and to her friends, to those she's never met before, and to the world itself. I thought about the things she's done for me and the things I've been able to do just because I know she loves me. As I write these things now, and as I think these thoughts on occasion, I am struck by how like a monologue from a bad romantic movie I sound, and I think about how I seem to be falling behind in treating her half as well as she treats me. But at the Wall, I didn't seem to have any room for thoughts like that. It's not as though my mind was clear and single-minded, but instead the usual constant background chatter of my brain was all chatter about the same thing.

These thoughts did not take long, running in parallel at high speeds, and the verbal part of my brain recovered enough to ask myself "And what else?" Again my answer was only partly verbal. I tried to think of all the other beautiful things in the world at once. I thought of others that I care for and that care for me, and I thought of the simple, sheer beauty of the universe itself. There almost wasn't enough room in my mind to be in awe of the pleasures of life, both mental and physical, but I tried to cram a bit more in. If I'd been speaking to someone instead of just thinking it to myself, I would have forced myself to go on in order to give the proper weight to all the wonderful things in the world, but I knew exactly what I meant, and so I moved on.

The last question I asked myself wasn't entirely in words, but it was something along the lines of "And what is wrong in the world?" Just as before, I mostly wordlessly gave myself a general impression of the horrible things that man sometimes does to man. I dismissed the realm of natural or accidental tragedies as unimportant in comparison to the suffering we have dealt to each other. I did not think about this long, but whether it was because I'd gotten my point across to myself or because I didn't want to dwell on the painful, I don't know. I stepped away from the wall.

I was immediately struck by how little second-thinking I did of myself while I was on the wall. And as soon as I thought that, I realized I was second-thinking myself, and it all came back. As much as it would make a good story to say how clear and simple my thoughts were when I touched the wall, it would be inappropriate. At that moment, I began to think about telling people about my experience about the wall, about writing this very journal entry. The religious would chalk it up as a miracle, but I would insist that as wonderful as it was, I couldn't ascribe it to divine intervention. But I don't want to give an untruthful impression. My thoughts were linear in that very brief moment, but it was far from miraculous in any sense. It was only the build-up to that moment that drew my attention to my precise mental state at that moment. I think that the things I thought were important and even worth repeating, but I've had to convince myself that I am not simply trying to make a good story out of my experience. As is evidenced by the time and effort I've put into this little journal entry, I do want it to be a good story, but I've put every effort to make the story good because it is true, and not because it is theatrical. I do love my girlfriend intensely, and all the things I thought about her are true, but I admit to myself that I get a kick out of showing off how great she is to the people who read my journal. But in spite of any enjoyment I might get out of sharing my story, I've tried my best to make sure that it is as true as possible.

I backed away from the wall. I stayed near the wall for quite some time, filling a minyan for a guy on our trip to say the Mourner's Kaddish for his mother. I took a few pictures, and then I backed away from the wall completely. We drove to the hotel, without much extra time before sundown, but I think that the time we spent at the Wall was enough to slow me down from the day's hectic schedule. I think it was probably best that we did go to the wall that day, even if it was on the schedule for Monday as well.