It was Friday and quickly approaching sunset. We were on our way to dinner, but this dinner was different. It was dinner with a Rabbi and his wife in their home near the old city in Jerusalem. Saturday is a holy day in the Jewish world. In this sector of the city, that was more apparent than any other place I had ever been.
In Jewish culture, Saturday is Sabbath- the Sabbat. Sabbath doesn’t begin at sunrise on Saturday morning. Sabbath begins at sunset the night before, on the Friday night. From sunset to sunset there can be no work- it is a day of total rest- and this part of the city was preparing to shut down entirely for a full twenty-four hours.
There was a rushed movement in the air. We had planned for one stop before dinner and the streets were becoming increasingly more crowded as we progressed. We were heading to the Western Wall of the old Temple Mount, otherwise known as the Wailing Wall. This was a pilgrimage. The entire trip was a pilgrimage, but this particular evening was special.
I had wanted to see the Wailing Wall for a very long time. In particular I had wanted to visit the Wall on the Friday evening Sabbat at sunset because this is when all of the Jewish people in the area gather to worship. This small section of wall that is part of the larger retaining wall of the foundation of the ancient Jewish Temple is all that is accessible to the Jewish people in connection to their ancient practice of temple worship in this place.
The streets and sidewalks were jammed with people and cars. Our driver got us as close as he could and then we jumped out and started on foot. There were lines with metal detectors and soldiers posted at every corner. There was a mounting tension and anticipation.
You could hear it before you saw it. The singing. The chanting. The laughing and crying. It echoed and rung out around the corners of the passageways. In the fading twilight of sunset over the ancient city thousands of people pressed in upon that wall and met with their God.
The Wall is considered one of the holiest places that Jewish people can worship today because it is the very closest that they can get to the ancient temple site. It is called the Wailing Wall because this is where the Jewish people come to cry out to God over the destruction of the temple. There is a tradition of writing down prayers and then shoving them into the cracks of the wall almost as if you are “hand-delivering” them to God.
When I explained this practice and these traditions to my sons before I left for the trip, both of my older boys wrote out a prayer and gave it to me to take to the wall. I had these prayers in my pocket as I came around the corner into view of this vibrant, pulsing open-air gathering of worship. I had a mission- I was going to get all the way to the wall and place their prayers alongside those of countless others.
To my left was a group of young people dancing in a large circle, holding hands, and singing in Hebrew as they welcomed the spirit of Sabbath and her rest. In a narrow opening beside a low wall to enter the crowd, there was a table at the entrance stacked with kippahs for those of us who did not bring our own. Only the men could enter on this side. Women had to enter the crowd on the other side of the gender dividing wall to worship together on their own. Men everywhere- body to body. It appeared absolutely disorganized but strangely orderly at the same time.
As you looked around the crowd, you could see that there were Rabbis scattered throughout the crowd- many with small tables on wheels with open Hebrew bibles – surrounded by their disciples and reading allowed or chanting out at the top of their lungs. The crowd of disciples would call back in Hebrew after each chant. Each group had its own style of dress, its own style of chant, and its own distinct place in the crowd and preference of worship. Imagine a hundred house churches gathering in the same courtyard and worshiping out loud at the top of their lungs at the same time!
There was dancing, shouting, crying, laughing, chanting, and constant movement. The whole thing was a dance. As I got close to the wall, I realized that I had gotten separated from the group. With a glance I saw that everyone had gotten separated from the group. This quick stop on the way to Sabbath dinner had become a holy pilgrimage for each individual in our own way.
I finally reached the wall and placed my hands upon those massive limestones that had been placed in the wall more than 2000 years ago- stones that Jesus had walked by and probably touched. Stones that had witnessed his life and execution and resurrection. Stones that held up the ancient temple on that mount and witnessed the turmoil of two millennia since. It was holy. So holy.
I found a good gap, folded up my boys prayers tight, and lodged them deep enough in that wall that they couldn’t possibly fall out. And then I prayed. I was overwhelmed with a sense of the presence of the living God there. In the turmoil. In the war. In the battle over holy land and sacred sites and systems of faith of belief- God was somehow above it all and I felt Him there.
The word for glory or presence in Hebrew is kavod. It literally means the weight of God. I felt his presence and weight in that moment. And it was incredible- like gravity pressing in. Every hair on my body stood on end.
And then we left and went about our evening to dinner. And I realized something:
I felt that same presence in the conversation over dinner with the Rabbi and his wife that hosted that evening.
I felt the same presence as I met with others on that trip and when I prayed for friends and members of my congregation at home.
I felt it when I sat with my friend who lost his father unexpectedly and we sat in holy pain.
I felt it when I shared with my boys how I shoved their prayers deep in God’s wall and when I worshipped with my friends at church last Sunday. It was all holy and God was with me and before me in all of those places as well.
Pilgrimage is an incredible experience and I recommend it for everyone. But the point isn’t to separate God and His presence into small spaces and specific locations only accessible at certain times. No. It turns out that everyday is a pilgrimage and the presence of God is around us always.
The holiest places teach you to recognize the holiness in all the places.
The exciting thing is learning to recognize the holiness of God’s presence in all of your interactions and all of the places you visit as you go about your day.
Everyday can be a pilgrimage. Let today be an everyday pilgrimage for you.