In 2018 America, the word wall immediately sparks a connotation with Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Mention of this wall creates political tension and a vast array of opinions…or possibly great comedic fodder if you’re a late night television host.
But long before Trump’s 2016 campaign for President, if one heard the word Wall in a political forum, most of the world would have likely associated it with the Western Wall in Jerusalem—which is both a holy place and a longstanding apex of political tension.
Before traveling to Israel, I had minimal understanding of the political climate, the geographic import of the competing holy sites, or the complexity of the historical ramifications for each religious group. As they say, there’s nothing like “being there” to help one fully comprehend.
The Western Wall is named that because it’s considered to be a remnant of the supporting West Wall of the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It’s just below the Temple Mount, (Mount Moriah) the elevated plaza area above the wall where the Islam’s gold-topped Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque now stand.
The Wall is as close to the former site of both of Judaism’s ancient temples (Solomon’s and Herod’s) as you can get as a Jew. And Solomon declared the importance of prayer as it related to the Temple area specifically in the Book of 1 Kings.
Also called the “Wailing Wall” because of the connotation of prayers of lament being offered there by Jews after the temple was destroyed, it’s considered the most sacred spot in Jewish religious tradition.
It is customary to visit the wall to pray and many leave small pieces of paper with written prayers in its crevices. There are two separate sides, with the men getting 2/3 of the real estate and the women 1/3.
As a woman who believes in the power of prayer, I was very excited for the day we’d visit the holy place called the Western Wall. Admittedly, I was also a bit apprehensive, not knowing if we’d be welcome as outsiders—both Americans and Christians.
My Takeaways from Praying at the Western Wall
1. Prayer is universal.
Initially, I felt like an interloper, and in fact, I could hardly find an open spot at the wall to pray. Eventually, I forgot about my own insecurities and embraced the moment.
Christian or Jew didn’t matter. Each had her own way. Some sat near the wall in chairs rocking back and forth with holy books, some sat as close to the wall as possible hands touching it, some stood with heads pressed against it. Some didn’t speak a word, others spoke out loud in their own language or in hushed prayer tongues.
Each Beautiful. Unique. Holy.
There were thousands upon thousands of slips of paper with written prayers stuffed in those cracked, ancient walls. I took a moment to ponder the countless people from all walks of life who’d written them.
How special to be united in prayer through this sacred Wall, even if it was for just a few minutes.
2. Stretching yourself is good.
I am a person who generally spares no words, so the thought of getting all my prayers on a sheet of paper small enough to fit in the wall’s crevice was stressful! So the night before we visited I spent some time writing my prayers in long form, and then consolidated them down to a name and one word that encapsulated my prayer for that person.
Hard to do, but worth the effort. The exercise of consolidation imprinted the prayers on my heart much differently than if I could have put a full notebook’s worth in that wall.
Afterwards I wondered, when was the last time I wrote out a long hand prayer? Or thought purposefully about who I wanted to pray for so I didn’t miss anyone? Or earnestly spoke out loud the prayers on my heart daily?
The exercise of summarizing my prayers along with entering a totally new and different prayer environment was so good for me. I think we should continually stretch ourselves, do things outside our box, and not get complacent with the comfortable “norm” of our prayer or faith life.
3. Reverence matters.
Many of the Jewish people walk backwards a considerable distance after praying before they will turn their back to the Wall. This is a sign of respect and awe for the holiness of the place. (Remember it’s as close as they can get to where the Temple once stood, which housed the Holy of Holies.)
In this day and age when many churches meet in movie theaters, gymnasiums, cafeterias, or auditoriums—instead of stained-glass, wooden-pewed, marble-filled sanctuaries—I think we struggle to create a sacred feeling in our houses of worship. While we’ve succeeded in making modern church more comfortable and welcoming, we’ve lost some of the reverence for God in the space.
Watching how the people acted in the presence of the Wall and during prayer convicted me of the importance of coming before the Lord with awe and reverence, in both our places of worship and during our times of prayer.
4. It’s not about the place—but it is.
I could’ve stayed so much longer because once I got over myself and started praying, I thought of more and more people and situations I wanted to pray for. The earnest prayers of the people around me were inspiring. Everything about how they prayed, their awe of God’s presence and holiness, their posture, it emboldened me in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time.
I know I don’t have to be in Jerusalem for God to hear my prayers. But being at the Western Wall revealed to me what my own prayer life was lacking.
Urgency. Clarity. Dedication. Set Apart time. Holy Expectation. Reverence. Awe. Intention. Commitment.
Being in that holy space inspired me to be more intentional about how and where I pray in America. I can create my own space at home where I recapture a vibrant prayer life.
Because it’s not about one place, it’s about making sure prayer has a place.
Suffice it to say, as with all good things, Israel is still working on me.