I have been trying to find the words to describe my experience in Israel. I have been trying to process the entire adventure and determine whether everything really happened, or whether it was just one big dream.
Israel is a beautiful country. The cities, the countryside, the people, and the history are all spectacular. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I felt an emotion I had never felt before; rather than feeling joy or contentment, I had an overwhelming feeling that this was the place I was supposed to be.
Jerusalem is, in many respects, the centre of the universe. It is East meets West, North meets South, Judeo-Christian values meets the Arab world, order meets chaos, man meets God. It is exhilarating. It is also terrifying.
Israel sits on the border of a very hostile region. Its neighbours would sooner see it destroyed than prosper. And yet, Israel, like the Jewish people, endures. Surrounded by enemies, the Jewish people have survived for thousands of years. There is a Yiddish word used to describe this endurance: chutzpah (derived from the Hebrew word חֻצְפָּה). It is the Jewish chutzpah, the audacity of fearlessness, that has allowed them to press on in the face of adversity, discrimination, and genocide. It is this same audacious notion that has occasioned the rise of a successful Jewish state and a thriving people amid this regional chaos.
My week in Israel flipped everything I thought I knew about the country and the ongoing conflict upside down. The answer to any question is not an easy yes or no – every topic is nuanced. There are two sides to every story. There will be a time to dig deeper into the ongoing geopolitical struggles in the region, but this post is not about that. This post is about a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience that has taken me several weeks to put into words.
On my last night in Jerusalem, I awake at three thirty in the morning. I know I will not be able to fall back asleep. I stand up and get dressed. A strange feeling washes over me. I have to see the Western Wall one last time. We had been there earlier in the week, but the experience was too brief and the moment too fleeting for me to truly appreciate the historical and emotional significance of the sight. Now, awake in the middle of the night, my mind is fixed on nothing other than that ancient wall. I have to go back.
Against my better judgement, I leave my hotel and walk towards the old city. It is that odd hour of the day where one is never sure if it is really late at night or really early in the morning. The bars and clubs are closing down for the night, as the last few straggling tourists burst through the exits and stumble back towards their hotels. Simultaneously, delivery trucks are arriving to supply the shops with products for the day ahead. As I walk further towards the gates of the Old City, it seems as if life stops altogether. I enter the gates and walk through the tiny alleys that just hours before had been full to the brim with vendors; colourful cloths, local spices, leather sandals, menorahs and kippas had lined the streets, as thousands of people walked through the ancient city.
None of that now. In the complete darkness, I might have been the only living person in all of Jerusalem. What time is it? What year is it? It doesn’t seem to matter. I am walking in the Holy City, making the same journey to the same wall that so many had done before me.
I turn a corner, and suddenly I am there. The empty alleys disappear and give way to a large courtyard – on the far side, the wall. The wall that two millennia ago held up the great Temple of Jerusalem now acts as the base for Al-Aqsa above. Still pitch black except for the floodlights, which brilliantly illuminate the stones ahead of me, I move forward. The courtyard is quiet. The few Orthodox Jews who are here at this hour are deep in prayer. My presence goes unnoticed. I cover my head with a kippa, as required, prior to laying my hands on the wall, closing my eyes, and bowing my head. I am here. In the centre of the centre of the universe. The holiest site in the world.
Some say the world itself began on the Foundation Stone above me. Located inside the Dome of the Rock, it is the holiest site in Judaism, yet no Jews are allowed to enter that place. Mount Moriah, overhead, is where Abraham bound his son Isaac, intending to sacrifice him as per the Lord’s command; Yahweh was faithful to Abraham, providing a lamb instead. It is the place where Solomon built his temple, where it was destroyed, and where it was rebuilt. This same temple is the place where Jesus Christ, the son of God, turned over the tables of the money changers and exclaimed, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
This wall survived the Sack of Rome. It is the place where Muslims say the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. It has seen death and destruction, as well as life and rebirth.
Living with the historical weight of the stone I am touching, I wait for a sign. I was sure I had been brought back to the wall for a reason. What did God want to tell me? Surely he wanted to say something? But as I place my hand on the rock I feel nothing. Complete and utter silence. No sudden burst of wind, no Holy Spirit speaking words of wisdom and comfort, nothing. I stand longer. I wait. I keep my eyes closed. How long was I standing there? Five minutes? Twenty? An hour? I honestly could not tell you.
When I open my eyes again my face is wet. I had been crying, but I have no recollection of it. I look on the ground below me and see a damp spot where my tears had fallen. I wipe my eyes and try to regain my composure. I step back from the wall.
I am suddenly overwhelmed with the immense weight of the glory of God. God is here. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Joseph, the God of Moses, the God of David, the God of Solomon, the God of the universe is here, right now. I am in his presence.
He is always here. He is everywhere. At least that’s what I believe, what I have been taught to believe. But in this moment, without question, for the first and maybe the last time in my life, I know he is right there, in the spot that I am. And finally, in this moment, in the early hours of the morning on January 3rd, 2017, in the holiest place in the world, I feel God’s peace. I feel Shalom. The worries and anxieties of home slip away. My entire feeling of self disappears as well. Who I am doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is Him. The feeling is immaculate. It is surreal. It is a momentary meeting of man and the divine.
And before I can think I start singing:
“Then sings my soul, my saviour God to Thee,
How Great Thou Art, How Great Thou Art,
Then Sings my soul, my saviour God to Thee,
How Great Thou Art, How Great Thou Art”
And then it was over. I knew I had to go, though my soul longed to stay. But something pushed me onward, as if to say the moment was over, and that it was okay to leave. I didn’t want to go back. I knew that once I left this place I would get on a plane and go back to the world as I knew it – a world full of pain and suffering and imperfection. I would have to face my demons, and I wasn’t ready for it. I wanted to stay and bask in the presence of the Lord. But I had to go. My time was up.
And so I left.
Faster now and with a spring in my step, I walk back up the alleys of the Old City and out past the old gates. I look back to see the beginnings of a sunrise. Jerusalem is still in complete darkness, but over the gates of the Old City I can see a beautiful, glorious, rising sun. The sun would follow me back to Canada.
In the afterglow of my divine experience, I continue to worship, to sing, to dance, and to rejoice all the way back to the hotel. When I finally arrive in my room it is just after 6 o’clock in the morning. The moment was over, but the memory will stick with me for the rest of my life.
I don’t know if it made anything better. I still have my demons to face here in Canada, 9000 kilometres away from the Western Wall. But I am comforted in the knowledge that I am not alone. That God is with me in these struggles. Though sometimes I wish he would speak a little louder, I know he is here and that his ways are above my ways. And so I will carry on. I will embody the same chutzpah – the audacity of fearlessness, of hope for better days – that fills the spirits of the Jewish people. I will press on in prayer that one day I may find my own Israel. My own peace. A land flowing with milk and honey. Paradise. Home.
That is a vision to dream for. That is a future to fight for.