The sun is going down on Jerusalem today. On Mt. Olive, the graves are silhouetted against the sky. We are back at the Wall and I do tefillin again. I am wearing a yarmulke I bought only a half hour before in one of the many small shops that pocket this quarter. This is the second trip to the Western Wall and this time it is warmer and the rain clouds have dispersed, leaving the sky a patchy mix of gray and light. There is a quiet urgency in our group, a kind of unspoken restlessness because we know that we have a half hour at the Wall before we climb back onto the bus for the last time and head out for the airport in Tel Aviv. I wander off and wrap tefillin like I did the last time. Twice now I have prayed this way and both times here at the Wall. When I get home, I will have to tell Yitzak.
There is a tendency here to feel at the center of the world. The Western Wall marks the outer ring of a Temple originally built at the spot of the biblical Binding of Isaac. And centuries later, when this would be ruins, on this spot where Abraham once raised a knife to his son, Mohammed ascended to Heaven and his followers would commemorate his apotheosis with the construction of the Dome of the Rock. Before and since then, this spot would infinitely change hands. If it is the center of the world, then the world is built on violence.
A British lecturer in Tel Aviv remarked on this. “I’d have liked to see Mohammed ascend to Heaven personally,” he said. “He’d be rising and say, ‘Well, guys, good luck figuring this one out.’”
I do not write a prayer this time. The Wall is crowded. A Hasidic rabbi is deathly ill and his congregation is here to pray for his health. The Hasids push up against the Wall, each struggling to find an open spot to touch, to nod their heads against while they pray. They recite Hebrew under their breath. A man comes up to me and starts speaking in Hebrew. I realize he is homeless and then he pauses and shifts into English and asks for change. His teeth are broken and yellow. I give him five shekels and he thanks me and says, “The air is cold for this time of year.” He rocks back once on his heels and wrapping a tattered talis around his shoulders, walks into the Hasidic crowd.
On the other side of this Wall is the Arab bazaar, a place we were told was too dangerous to visit, though the Israelis say they go there all the time. Behind me, soldiers with M16s pace up and down the marble, with and their backs straight and most of their faces shaved. They are all my age. Today, at Yad Vashem, our eight soldiers stood in a line as they sang the Israeli national anthem. Someone grabbed my arm, and I flushed, feeling awkward for singing an anthem outside the Holocaust museum. We had just walked out of the exhibit. I had lingered behind in the final room, a place called the “Well of Souls.” In the center of this room was a deep hole and above was a dome where images of the victims’ faces faded in and out of the interior. Circling the walls were shelves filled with binders, all information on those who died. There is space on the shelves for more binders. There are words inscribed on a small black plaque next to the well reading, “We are all seized with an overwhelming desire to write letters before we die.”
The Kabbalic notion of creation is that we are inscriptions—reality is the lack, the space hewed out from God. God, Himself, carved from His body, we are the borders within the infinite, the tattooed numbers left behind on forearms as revenants. The center of this world is the Wall. It is finite, it is the ultimate religious reality but its back is up against another culture.
Running my fingers along the pockmarks in the Wall, I see the red creases that the phylacteries left in my arm, and like the new wall that crawls towards the center of Jerusalem over this Middle Eastern horizon, I realize that I, too, have been hewn. Tonight, as we float quietly over the Atlantic, I will dream of orchards and islands and lost and lonely shoes.