Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage is available in paperback and on kindle and is being reprinted on Catholic News Agency with author’s permission. Cheryl’s non-fiction book is called Our Jewish Roots: A Catholic Woman’s Guide to Fulfillment Today by Connecting with Her Past.Chapter Twenty-One
Happy the people who know you, Lord, who walk in the radiance of your face. Psalm 89:16
Elizabeth was awakened by the noise coming from the hall between her apartment and the Goldfarbs. Her bedroom shared a wall with the hall and Beth was, for the first time, aware of this fact. She stirred in bed and then listened intently to the rise in pitch and volume of the voices. Getting out of bed, Beth pulled on her robe, stepped into her slippers and made her way to the door. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to open it and instead put her ear to it in hopes of catching enough words to figure out the cause for the commotion.
Unable to make heads or tails of what was happening, Beth finally opened the door. Staring right into a neighbor’s face, Beth smiled as if to say, Is everything all right? but caught herself as she saw Mitzi crying and being held by two other older women, also wrapped in their robes. One of them looked Beth’s way, knowing who Beth was but never having had the pleasure of speaking with her and said, “Mitzi’s husband passed away this morning. They are taking him now. We are sorry if we have disturbed you.”
“Oh my, please, I am sorry Mitzi,” Beth said as she left her door ajar and moved towards Mitzi. Mitzi who had been so kind to her just days before, bringing her food and companionship. How ironic that Mitzi, who had so patiently taught Beth how to say the mourner’s greeting, was now hearing it issue from Beth’s mouth.
Ayala had told Beth earlier in the week that Mitzi’s husband had been quite ill for the past few months, congestive heart failure had been the diagnosis. Everyone in the complex knew that his time was limited and yet no one could imagine life without him was what Ayala had said. Again, how ironic it was that Ayala had actually been saying words that would apply to the emptiness her death had left as well. It seemed clear that a friend’s death, whether expected or not, left an emptiness that was impossible to fill.
Maybe that was what God intended, Beth thought. That we all have a role to fill, a part in God’s divine plan. And when we do what we were brought forth to do, we have affected certain lives in such a way that we continue to live on in the memories of those people. Beth knew for certain that Ayala would always live on in Beth’s heart and mind. Beth also knew that her life was richer for having known Ayala for only a few short days. Could the same be said for people who had known Beth? She worried that such a statement could not be said. Was she doing what God called her forth to do?
As she was standing in the hall, Rachel and Sipporah appeared at the top of the stairs. Mitzi’s neighbors began speaking in Hebrew, undoubtedly telling Rachel and Sipporah the news of Chaim’s death. Hearing his name, which Beth had completely forgotten, made the memory of him delivering the bag of food from Mitzi flood Beth’s mind.
Rachel and Sipporah discreetly removed themselves from Mitzi and her friends and walked with Beth into Beth’s apartment. “I’m sorry I’m not ready,” Beth apologized. “For the first time in ages I slept in! I think the week is catching up with me.”
“Or you’ve finally let go of some things that have been on your mind, thus allowing you to sleep,” offered Sipporah. Beth knew she was right and gave a silent prayer of gratitude for what the restful sleep undoubtedly did for her emotional and physical well-being.
“Give me twenty minutes and we can start our day,” Beth said as she headed towards the bathroom to splash her face with cold water and brush her teeth.
“Don’t hurry,” insisted Rachel. “Where we are going today has been there for thousands of years. A few extra minutes won’t matter!”
Beth laughed and closed the bathroom door. She was a willing participant in whatever Rachel had on today’s agenda. She splashed the cold water on her face, applied a moisturizer that also contained a sunscreen, and added a few strokes of mascara for good measure. Although as soon as she applied the mascara she regretted it, thinking that if the day held any more tears, her face would be a streaked mess. Staring at herself in the mirror she saw a woman whose neck and jowl line were a bit weaker than just a year ago but whose eyes still sparkled with the hopes of what a new day could bring.
She opted to leave the mascara on and headed to her bedroom where she pulled on yet another monochromatic outfit, tying the requisite sweater around her neck. She was alternating between pairs of shoes and put on the pair she had worn two days before. Looking at herself in the full length mirror, she simply could not decide how she felt about herself. Did she like what she saw? Was she ready to let go of her youth? Were the answers somewhere “out there” or were they buried deep inside of her? Letting out a long stream of air through her mouth, she walked into the living room and announced, “Okay, I’m ready!”
Rachel and Sipporah joined her at the door. As they walked out Rachel informed Beth that today they were going to The Wailing Wall, also called The Western Wall, and that they would also venture to Golgotha and the Garden Tomb.
Beth had enjoyed Rachel’s discourse before entering The Holy Sepulchre and asked if Rachel would be kind enough to share information about today’s sites. Maybe it was the teacher in Beth, but the information ahead of time had made the experience that much more valuable. Rachel agreed and began with information about The Wailing Wall.
“Let’s begin by talking of the two terms used interchangeably for the wall. One is “The Western Wall” while the other is “The Wailing Wall.” For non-Jews there seems to be no difference but for Jews and Palestinians there is a tremendous difference. This has been especially true since the many talks and negotiations that the west has tried to have between the two warring factions and how the wall might play a significant role in what land is said to belong to whom.”
Beth was, once again, intrigued by the information that Rachel was sharing. She knew that Rachel must have been a favorite professor at the university. She clearly enjoyed disseminating knowledge in an interesting and comprehensive way. Beth found Rachel’s talks to be quite valuable.
"The length of the Western Wall is significant. Is it simply the area of the wall traditionally used by Jews for prayer and lamentation, which is less than sixty meters, or does it include the entire western retaining wall of the temple mount, the sacred area in which three faiths stake great claims? The Palestinians want any settlement to use the shorter length while the Jewish state wants any settlement to reflect the entire length which is almost five hundred meters. You can see that this is a significant difference.”
Beth thought of the marketplace and the vibrant life that the Arabs brought to it and received from it. She knew that Ayala had fondly thought of the merchants as friends and Beth was glad to have seen the very human side of the difficult co-existence. Ayala and her favorite merchant had died together from assailants still unknown. Two families had been greatly affected by the tragedy: one Arab, the other Jew.
Sipporah was helping Rachel shed light on the history of the wall. “The Hebrew term ha-kotel ha-ma'aravi or "Western Wall" is far older than the term "Wailing Wall." This isn’t said to bolster the Jewish argument for the length to be determined in their favor, this is just a fact. As early as the seventh or eighth century, we find the term “Western Wall” as being attributed to Rabbi Acha, himself a fourth-century scholar, when he stated that the Shekinah, which is God’s presence in the world and with His people, did not leave the “Western Wall.” However, There is some question as to whether Rabbi Acha was speaking of today's Western Wall or was he actually referring to the Temple’s destroyed west wall? Up to that point there had been no recorded mention of praying and mourning, as happens today. In fact, in the first few centuries after the destruction of the Temple, Roman authorities would not even allow Jews to enter Jerusalem and so their praying and lamenting actually occurred elsewhere. They stood on the Mount of Olives where from that vantage point they were able to look out over the Temple Mount. If you think about it, it must have been a much more traumatic sight as their eyes could take in all of the destruction instead of standing at a wall in which their view would have been quite myopic.”
Beth agreed with Sipporah’s assessment recalling the popular phrase, You can’t see the forest for the trees. So, in this case seeing the forest would have been more heart wrenching for the Jews than just seeing the trees.
Rachel finished where Sipporah had left off, “This practice has been recorded by an early Church Father named Jerome, who witnessed the Jews on the Mount of Olives on the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning and commemoration of the Temple destruction. Father Jerome watched as the Jews looked down upon the ruins, themselves wailing and crying. Ultimately many scholars conclude that the term “wailing wall” was introduced in the twentieth century after the Turks conquered Jerusalem. Either way it seems to be, sadly, one more point of contention between Palestinian and Jew.”
By this time they had parked and Rachel suggested that Beth write out a “kvitlich.” She said it was a paper that had a prayer, or prayer request, on it and would be inserted into one of the cracks in the wall. Here she was hand delivering her prayers to the wall that God’s presence was said to never leave. It was almost too much to bear. Beth’s mind flooded with prayers that ran from the purely selfish to the purely selfless. She thought of praying for her children; that Sophia would know how much Beth loved her and felt blessed to have her as a daughter or that one day all her children would find wonderful spouses, or that her own career would flourish, or that the world would know Christ’s love and peace.
Her mind was filled with hopes and dreams for herself, her family, her friends, her neighbors, and the world. What to ask? she postulated. Where to begin?
In the end her prayer request was simple. She remembered the story of a peasant who went to pray and but was unable to read from his prayer book. He was an unlearned man, not scholarly, and felt that whatever words he would offer to God would be inadequate. He chose to simply say the alphabet, out loud, and humbly suggested that God use the letters in His own way, for His own purposes. With that in mind, Beth simply wrote on her kvitlich, Thy will be done.
With kvitlich in hand, Beth approached the portion of the wall reserved for women. Interestingly, she had no qualms about the segregation. Nothing could surpass her heightened sense of the divine as she neared the wall.
Beth thought of Pope John Paul’s historic trip to the Wailing Wall. She was awed by the realization that millions of people had taken the same trip over the course of hundreds of years. God’s presence was surely calling them, just as it was calling her now.
For the second time in as many days, Beth understood the magnificence and splendor of God. She entered into communion with Him and neither heard nor saw anyone else at the wall. Time stood still as Beth rocked and swayed and praised the Creator of all that was, is, and ever shall be. She stood in awe of His glory as she inserted her kvitlich into the wall.
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