I’m in Israel for a week. Some of my friends invited me to join them at the last minute, and I was in Europe already, and the flight to Israel was short and cheap, so I said, “Sure!”
Yesterday we took a tour of Jerusalem.
Our first stop was at the Western (aka Wailing) Wall.
It stands on King Herod’s Temple Mount, most of which was destroyed a long time ago. The cornerstone of the temple is owned by the Muslims, and is covered by the Dome of the Rock, which only Muslims can visit.
Jews are allowed to access the Western Wall, which used to be called the Wailing Wall.
A fence separates the men’s half of the wall from the women’s half of the wall. Our tour guide gave us small pieces of paper, and directed us to write a note to God, which we could roll up and leave in the crevices of the Wall. Then he separated the men from the women.
I purified my hands, and entered the women’s side of the wall. There were women to my left and to my right. Some were silently standing there with their hands or foreheads pressed to the Wall.
Then there was the woman on my left.
She looked to be in her early 50’s with short black hair. She was wearing a long skirt and a long-sleeved black shirt with pink and yellow flowers.
And she was wailing.
She had her right hand pressed against the Wall, and in her left hand she held a small Hebrew prayer book, which she pressed against her face. And she was sobbing into it, spilling tears onto the pages of the book.
She was rocking back and forth, wailing, sobbing.
I wondered what was causing her pain. I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders, pull her to face me, and embrace me in a long, warm, American-style hug.
But hugging her seemed inappropriate and intrusive and, possibly, culturally insensitive, so I didn’t touch her.
Instead, I stood next to her with my hand against the Wall, praying with her and for her.
As I stood at the Wall, listening to the woman sobbing, choosing to stand there and pray with her instead of trying to intervene in her pain, I thought about my upcoming trip to Togo.
I’ll be leaving in two weeks to serve at a hospital in a remote village in Togo (a country in West Africa.)
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about my time there, because I’ve been a bit worried. I’ve been worried about my physical stamina, because it’s really hot there, the days are long, and I’ll be on call every 4th night. But I’ve been even more about my emotional stamina, because I’m a very empathetic person, and I tend to feel people’s pain and want to solve it. And yet I know I’ll encounter a lot of pain I can’t solve, a lot of situations I can’t fix.
At the Wall, I stood with the woman on my left who was sobbing into her prayer book. And I realized — the reason I didn’t need to intervene was not just because it would be intrusive and culturally insensitive. It was because the woman was praying to God. God was there. God was listening. God was as solid as the Wall against which we were leaning. God wasn’t leaving, and God wasn’t letting go of this precious woman who was crying out to him.
I realized that when I encounter people in pain — whether it’s in Togo, or anywhere else I go — ultimately, I can’t solve people’s pain. I can do what I can, but after that, I can simply be with them.
I can stand there with them at the Wailing Wall as they pour out their pain to God.
And I can trust that God is listening, that God is there, that God is solid, that God isn’t leaving, and God isn’t letting go.