Wednesday, June 11th, 2008
Jerusalem – In the Bible, Jews are commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple three times a year, on each of the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – a tradition that was revived after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War reunited the city of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, at the site of the Temple.
Based on the belief that the Torah was given at dawn, tens of thousands of people come to pray at the Wall on Shavuot morning just as darkness gives way to light, many having been up all night studying Torah, another custom of the holiday that seems particularly fitting for insomniacs.
Not wanting to miss out on this experience, my wife and I set out at 4:20 a.m. on Monday from Emek Refaim, in the heart of the German Colony, to make the hilly, holy trek to the Old City.
From the outset, we were enthralled by the vision of a steady stream of people walking quietly but purposefully in the cool night air. Many were teenagers, part of Bnei Akiva [religious Zionist] youth groups, in their white shirts and dark pants, but there were people of all ages, and we joined them for the half-hour walk. Men carried their tallit bags and prayer books, some people carried portable chairs on their backs [anticipating the two-hour prayer service], and just about everyone had water with them, since the walk back would be in the heat of the day.
Along the way, we could not help thinking that we were retracing the footsteps of our ancestors thousands of years ago, and of the miracle of an Israel reborn in our time. And for all the divisions that plague Israeli society, the sight, on arrival in the plaza leading up to the Kotel, of many thousands of Jews here to share this experience was heartening, though it was clear that this was overwhelmingly an Orthodox crowd, from chasidim to haredim to the more modern.
We had rarely seen the plaza so densely packed, with prayer services sprouting up every few yards, and the space between people quite limited. But there was little noise, considering the multitude. There was an air of dignity; people knew where they were, and why they had come.
The words of the ancient prayers, calling for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and celebrating the festivals there, took on an added meaning during the service we joined, and we felt part of a tradition and people that seem to transcend history.
But the memory most vivid for me is that purposeful, almost silent walk in the still of night, joining with so many others on the way to the Old City. It was a feeling of connectedness to those around us and to our ancestors as well, symbolizing the faith of generations who made their way through the darkness, driven by the belief that the dawn of their deliverance awaited them on the path ahead.