Where is God? Wherever you let God in.
– The Kotzker Rebbe
As the Shabbat sun reached far into the west, and the first relief of the afternoon’s heat sighed over Jerusalem, my husband, two young sons and I set out on foot for the Western Wall (the Kotel). Our five year-old son Eli protested leaving the cool air of our hotel room for this place that he did not want to go.
It wasn’t until half-way up the meandering path on a hill that leads to Zion gate that he asked:
“Wait, are we going to the KOTEL?”
I replied: “Yes.”
He said: “I thought you said HOTEL. Oh, the KOTEL… I love that place!” (as though he’d been there before).
He had this familiarity and apparent love of the Kotel from his experience of a mini-Western Wall that he visited in a Gan Shalom classroom on Yom Hatzma-ut (Israel Independence Day).
Once inside Zion Gate (where Eli wanted to be lifted up so he could kiss the giant mezuzah on the gate), just as we rounded the first corner inside the gate, a huge red ball flew overhead. A group of young arab men had been playing soccer on an athletic court above us. With one mighty kick over an enormous fence, they lost their ball under a parked car. They didn’t see where it landed so I yelled up in Hebrew where it had fallen. They were so high up, that I didn’t see a way for me to get the ball to them, so I gestured with an apologetic shrug and continued walking. They yelled for assistance to the two men walking after us (one of whom had peyas and a tzittzit katan over his shirt, the other wore shabbos white and a white kippah). The two men stopped, found the ball, and with one mighty kick by the man in shabbos white, the ball sailed over fence from which it came. The men above resumed their game while the men below continued their walk to the Kotel. I was happy that my boys experienced that slice of Jerusalem life.
Once we arrived at the kotel, the boys went with my husband to the men’s side of the kotel. I watched, kvelling at the sight, from the women’s side. Suddenly, they turned around to exit. I thought that the large group of men in streimels might have scared the boys. I came out to meet them in the plaza.
“The boys want to write prayers to put in the wall,” my husband explained.
I reached into my backpack and tore off two small pieces of paper. I told the boys:
“Hold this paper over your heart and ‘write’ your prayer. Then we can go back down and put it into the wall.”
The boys took the direction very seriously. They closed their eyes for a moment and gently clutched the papers to their chests. After thirty seconds, they were ready to return to the wall. This time, my three year-old, Ben, came with me on the women’s side. He wanted to squeeze his prayer into a high-up crevice, just under two birds resting comfortably beneath one of the kotel’s many caper bushes.
We tucked his prayer, the two of us, into the highest point we could reach and then met my husband and Eli again in the plaza. Eli proudly told us how he tucked his own prayer in the wall. They loved our little pilgrimage, our sacred adventure. For them, the highpoint was sticking the prayer in the wall. For me, the highpoint was watching their faces as they “wrote” their prayers.
In this holy city so full of tensions and surprises, I felt grateful to witness my sons’ prayers. I have found myself wondering about the prayers my sons “wrote” on the white sheets of paper over their hearts. (What beauty I saw in their faces as they were writing those prayers.) I pray that they will continue to find a sense of adventure and a peaceful path as they seek out different places to offer their prayers to God.
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago – she is currently in Israel as part of the prestegious Hartman Fellowship.