Sunday, March 30, 2008

The New Kotel

The Jewish Week, November 2003

It was almost 4:00 PM on the fourth day of my community’s recent mission to Israel, and the sun was receding fast, so we quickly passed out the booklets for the afternoon prayers. And, as Jews have done for centuries on pilgrimage to our Holy Land, we prayed facing a structure of both great yearning and profound sadness, the Kotel..

No, not THAT Kotel, otherwise known as the Western or Wailing Wall; but rather the northern extension of the NEW Kotel, the recently-completed section of the security fence that protects the city of Afula and the communities of the Jezreel valley.

The fence, or Seam Zone as the Israelis call it, is being built roughly along the 1967 borders. It will cost billions of shekels, but the vast majority of Israelis have been anxiously awaiting its completion. There are some major differences as to the exact route it should take; but no one disputes its effectiveness. Over the past three horrible years, not a single suicide attack by Palestinian terrorist on Israel proper has originated in Gaza, where there has long been a fence; and infiltration from Lebanon, where there is a similar boundary, is nearly impossible. It’s not really a fence, but rather a sophisticated network of barriers, trenches, roads and electronic monitors, all designed to slow down and pinpoint areas of penetration. It is no less remarkable an engineering feat than Herod’s original retaining wall that fortified the Temple Mount.

So there we were, perhaps the first Jews to be praying at this Kotel, facing southward in the direction of Jerusalem, thereby also facing the fence, and, just beyond it and clearly in view, Jenin.

Although the Seam Zone is not a political border, it will be very difficult to move once it is in place. My group prayed at an area that had been infiltrated often over the past three pre-fence years. But now on this kibbutz you can once again hear the sounds of children at play. It may not be a political border, but psychologically, the Seam Zone has made all the difference. Judaism has long known that psychological fences can be more liberating than any signed treaty.

Even my dog knows this!

Last year we welcomed into my family Crosby, a midsized, rambunctious black standard poodle. Concerned at his infatuation with moving vehicles, we decided to install a so-called “invisible fence” around our property. It’s a lovely name; I guess the people in marketing decided against calling it the “Electro-shock Dog Zapper.” Training Crosby with the special collar was not easy. We all have those “this will hurt me more than it hurts you” moments with our loved ones, but I’m reasonably sure that the jolt hurt him more than it hurt me. And within a few sessions, Crosby was trained.

Ironically, now that he has been restricted to the area within the fence, Crosby has been liberated – and he’s happier than ever. He can run freely all over the yard. And while he might occasionally look forlornly at the green grass on the other side of that invisible barrier, he leaps and barks far, far away from the dangers of those automotive fedayeen charging up the road. Even if he were to shed the special collar, he would still stay behind the invisible fence. One might call it force of habit – or structure and security.

Jewish tradition has its own invisible fences. An Eruv is a somewhat physical but primarily metaphysical boundary within which traditional Jews can carry on Shabbat. The Talmud also instructs us in Pirke Avot to build a fence around the Torah (a “syag l’Torah”). The idea was that we should consciously avoid behaviors that might place us dangerously close to violating a Torah law. Traditionally, this principle has been cited as a justification for everything from the lighting of Shabbat candles before sunset, to the Ashkenazi prohibition of legumes on Passover, to the separation of milk and meat dishes.

Today, Crosby is a very happy dog. The people of the Jezreel Valley are happier too. And so were the people of downtown Jerusalem – for one night, at least. A highlight of the recently completed UJC General Assembly was a march into the downtown area by thousands of North Americans, joined by Israeli youth. For a few precious hours the clock was turned back, as, with security on the highest level, we returned to the places so many have long been avoiding. We were welcomed with outstretched hands and free food as we walked though the Mahane Yehuda market, site of so many attacks. Signs on Ben Yehuda Street praised our courage, while we could only be dumbstruck at how Jerusalemites have persevered. Total strangers embraced in an extended family reunion. The pedestrian mall was filled with the sounds of dancing and singing, joy and delight, fulfilling the vision of the seventh blessing recited at each Jewish wedding.

Ironically, that blessing is adapted from Jeremiah, who, after witnessing the destruction of the First Temple, thought those joyous reverberations would never again be heard. But the rabbis, who had been equally devastated after the Second Temple went down, turned the phrase on its head in creating that seventh blessing. And sure enough, at a time, when many of us have wondered whether downtown Jerusalem would ever revive, the invisible fence of security allowed that revitalization to come about, if only for a night.

There is a lesson here. When people feel secure, they turn immediately from war toward a celebration of life. Once the security fence is complete and its effectiveness proven, Israelis will not hesitate – once again – to direct its leaders to reach out to its neighbors on the other side.

My group may have been the first to offer prayers before this new Kotel, but I suspect it will not be the last.

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