There it was – the Western Wall, hakotel hama’aravi. The sun was hanging over the top of the wall, reflecting off the stones at my feet. As I stood in front of the holiest sight in Israel, I realized I was waiting for something, some reaction to the realization that I was finally at the Kotel, where so much history lives in the stones, if only they could talk!
I wanted to feel something spiritual or uplifting, reminding me of Israel’s holiness. After all, I felt I was at an age where I could better appreciate the moment’s significance. But all I felt was the sun in my eyes. I walked closer and saw people leaning against the wall in meditative prayer, some with arms around each other, deeply emotional. I thought prayer would help me feel something, so I reached for a siddur and found a spot right in front of the wall.Despite the heat, the stones were cool and smoother than I thought they would be against my fingertips. From afar, they seemed crumbling and fragile, but I was surprised by how sturdy they were. I was reminded again of history. How many people had touched these walls? How long ago was the Kotel just one wall that made up the great Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash?
I opened my siddur and began to pray. I heard a woman near me crying quietly and saw another with her forehead against the stones, deep in meditative prayer. I still felt strangely empty. It was my first time in Israel, and I felt like I had been here my whole life but not in a comforting or familiar way. I felt like I was so accustomed to the Kotel, after reading and learning so much about it during my years in yeshiva, that I took the sight for granted. I couldn’t really appreciate it. I wondered, was I lacking in some vital spiritual part of myself? Was I a heartless monster? Why couldn’t I have the concentration, the kavanah, to appreciate this moment?
Although it was summer, I found myself harking back to a class I had taken in college the past semester. It was a religion course where we discussed how some people gain spirituality just through meditation or mindful thoughts rather than organized religion. But I couldn’t connect to that meditative or mindful side of myself. I began to grow discouraged.
I started to focus myself inward to figure out what light switch inside me couldn’t be turned on. I tuned out the murmured prayers around me and focused on the words in my siddur and what they meant. I thought about the Beit Hamikdash, the center of the Jewish people, a holy site in our religion that was destroyed. The praying helped, and I did feel a little bit emotional, but it was not the most spiritual experience I’ve had despite the evident holiness of the Kotel.
But the more I thought about it, the more accepting of this disappointment I became, because it made me remember something significant about Judaism. The beauty of our religion is that we are able to talk to God and experience spirituality anywhere in the world. We can pray to Him at any time to ask for forgiveness or just to talk. We all have a direct line to God, and we don’t need to rely on any special vessel to communicate. Our ability to form a connection with Him doesn’t depend on any certain time or place.
Visiting the Kotel not only reminded me of the history of the Jewish people but of the beauty of my religion. I hope to go back to Israel soon and learn more about its past. But, in the meantime, I take great comfort in the fact that spirituality can be found not just in the holy land but anywhere in the world.
Elizabeth Zakaim is currently a sophomore at The College of New Jersey, double majoring in psychology and journalism. For comments or questions, feel free to email her at email@example.com.